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MARINE CORPS U LIBRARY 




3000105235 



ES IN VIETNAM 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



1968 




L 



COVER: Marine infantry advance caii- 
tiously under support of the 90mm gun of a 
A148 tank in street fighting in Hue. Even 
with the tank support, the Marines found the 
enemy resistance difficult to overcome in the 
first days of the operation. 

Department of D^-fepse (USMC) Photo Aiy04UU 



U.S. MARINES IN VIETNAM 

THE DEFINING YEAR 
1968 



by 

Jack Shulimson 

Lieutenant Colonel Leonard A. Blasiol, U.S. Marine Corps 

Charles R. Smith 

and 

Captain David A. Dawson, U.S. Marine Corps 




HISTORY AND MUSEUMS DIVISION 
HEADQUARTERS, U.S. MARINE CORPS 
. WASHINGTON, D.C. 

1997 

DIRECTOR MARINE CCP.PS RESEARCH CEMTER 
ArrN COLLECTION MANAGEMENT (C40RCL) 

2040 BROADWAY ST 
QUANTICOVA 22134-5107 



^^Oz^t 



Volumes in the Marine Corps 
Vietnam Series 

Operational Histories Series 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1934—1964. The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, \911 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1963, The Landing and the Buildup, 1978 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966. An Expanding War. 1982 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1961, Fighting the North Vietnamese. 1984 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1969. High Mobility and Standdown, 1988 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1970— 197 1. Vietnamization and Redeployment. 1986 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam. 1971-1973. The War that Would Not End 1991 

U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1973-1973. The Bitter End 1990 

Functional Histories Series 

Chaplains ivith Marines in Vietnam, 1962—1971, 1985 
Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial By Fire, 1989 

Anthology and Bibliography 

The Marines in Vietnam, 1934—1973. An Anthology and Annotated Bibliography. 
1974; reprinted 1983; revised second edition, 1985 



Library of Congress Card No. 77—604776 
PCN 190 0031 3800 



For sale by the U.S. Government Printing Oltlce 

Superintendent of Documcnt.s. Mail Stop: SSOP. Washington, DC 20402-9328 

ISBN 0-16-049125-8 



Foreword 



This is the last volume, although published out of chronological sequence, in the nine- 
volume operational history series covering the Marine Corps' participation in the Vietnam 
War. A separate functional series complements the operational histories. This book is the 
capstone volume of the entire series in that 1968, as the title indicates, was the defining year 
of the war. While originally designed to be two volumes, it was decided that unity and cohe- 
sion required one book. 

The year 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive including Khe Sanh and Hue City. These 
were momentous events in the course of the war and they occurred in the first three months 
of the year. This book, however, documents that 1968 was more than just the Tet Offensive. 
The bloodiest month of the war for the U.S. forces was not January nor February 1968, but 
May 1968 when the Communists launched what was called their "Mini-Tet" offensive. This 
was followed by a second "Mini-Tet" offensive during the late summer which also was 
repulsed at heavy cost to both sides. By the end of the year, the U.S. forces in South Viet- 
nam's I Corps, under the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF), had regained the offen- 
sive. By December, enemy-initiated attacks had fallen to their lowest level in two years. 
Still, there was no talk of victory. The Communist forces remained a formidable foe and a 
limit had been drawn on the level of American participation in the war 

Although largely written from the perspective of III MAF and the ground war in I Corps, 
the volume also treats the activities of Marines with the Seventh Fleet Special Landing Force, 
activities of Marine advisors to South Vietnamese forces, and other Marine involvement in 
the war. Separate chapters cover Marine aviation and the single manager controversy, 
artillery, logistics, manpower, and pacification. 

Like most of the volumes in this series, this has been a cumulative history. Lieutenant 
Colonel Leonard A. Blasiol researched and wrote the initial drafts of the chapters on Khe 
Sanh as well as Chapters 17, 19, and 21 and the account of Operation Thor in Chapter 26. 
Mr. Charles R. Smith researched and drafted Chapters 16, 18, 20, and 22. Captain David 
A. Dawson researched and wrote Chapter 27. Dr Jack Shulimson researched and wrote the 
remaining chapters, edited and revised the entire text, and incorporated the comments of 
the various reviewers. 

Dr. Shulimson heads the History Writing Unit and is a graduate of the University of 
Buffalo, now the State University of New York at Buffalo. He earned his master's degree in 
history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan and his doctorate from the 
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland in American studies. Mr Smith is a senior 
historian in the Division and served in Vietnam as an artilleryman and then as a historian 
with the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and 
received his master's degree in history from San Diego State University. Lieutenant Colonel 
Blasiol is an experienced artilleryman and a graduate of Tulane University, New Orleans, 
Louisiana, with a degree in history, and of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. 
Captain Dawson is an infantry officer now stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He 
holds a bachelor of arts degree in history from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York and a 
master's degree in history from Kansas State University, Lawrence, Kansas. 




*«tr*o 



E. H. SIMMONS 
Brigadier General, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired) 
Director Emeritus of Marine Corps History and Museums 



Preface 



U.S. Marines in Vietnatii, The Defining Year, 1968 like the preceding volumes in this 
series is largely based upon the holdings of the Marine Corps Historical Center. These 
include the official unit command chronologies, after-action reports, message and 
journal files, various staff studies, oral histories, personal papers, and reference collec- 
tions. In addition, the authors have used the holdings of the other Services and perti- 
nent published primary and secondary sources. Most importantly, nearly 230 review- 
ers, most of whom were participants in the events, read draft chapters and made 
substantive comments. They are listed by name in a separate appendix. While some 
classified sources have been used, none of the material in the text contains any classi- 
fied information. 

To a large extent, the measurement of this war relied not upon territory occupied, 
but upon casualties inflicted upon the enemy. In enumerating enemy casualties, the 
authors are not making any statement upon the reliability or accuracy of these num- 
bers. These are merely the figures provided by the reporting units. They are impor- 
tant in that the U.S. military and national leadership depended in part upon the com- 
parative casualty yardstick to report and evaluate progress in the war. 

In any project this large and that involved so many people, the authors are in debt to 
several of their associates, past and present, in the History and Museums Division. 
While it is not possible to list everyone, we would be most negligent if we did not thank 
the following. First, Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, Director Emeritus, provid- 
ed the vision and backing for the entire series, insisting upon readability and accuracy. 
Colonel Michael F. Monigan, Acting Director, gave the impetus for final completion of 
the project. Chief Historian Benis M. Frank, and his predecessor, Henry I. Shaw, Jr., fur- 
nished editorial guidance and encouragement. Ms. Wanda J. Renfrew ot the Histories 
Section and Mr. Robert E. Struder, Head of Editing and Design, read the entire manu- 
script together with Mr. Frank and prevented several minor errors and some embarrass- 
ments. Mrs. Cathy A. Kerns, of the Editing and Design Section, typed the photograph 
captions and the Medal of Honor Appendix. Both Mrs. Kerns and Ms. Renfrow 
painstakingly inserted the multitudinous entries for the index, carefully checking the 
index against the text. Finally, Ms. Renfrow patiently and ably made the numerous revi- 
sions in the organization of the index. Mr. William S. Hill provided technical direction 
for both the maps and insertion of the photographs. Ms. Evelyn A. Englander of the 
library was most helpful in obtaining publications. The Archives staff (under the direc- 
tion of Fred J. Graboske and his predecessor, Ms. Joyce Bonnett), especially Ms. Joyce 
M. Hudson and Ms. Amy C. Cohen, cheerfully made their resources available, as did Art 
Curator John T. Dyer, Jr. The Reference Section under Danny J. Crawford was always 
most cooperative, especially Ms. Lena M. Kaljot, who assisted in the duplication of most 
of the photographs. A special thanks goes to Lieutenant Colonel Leon Craig, Jr., Head 
of the Support Branch; his administrative officer, First Lieutenant Mark R. Schroeder; 
and his enlisted Marines, especially Staff Sergeant Myrna A. Thomas and Corporal Juan 
E. Johnson, who assisted in that last push for publication. 

Both Mr. Struder and Mr. Hill adroitly handled the liaison with the Typography 
and Design Division of the U.S. Government Printing Office in the layout ol the 
book. Mr. Struder deftly and professionally assisted in the reading ot page proofs and 
Mr. Hill meticulously monitored the preparation of charts and maps. The authors also 
appreciate the efforts of Mr. Nicholas M. Freda and Mr. Lee Nance of the Typography 



and Design Division, Mr. Freda tor his careful layout ot text and Mr. Nance tor the 
final preparation of all maps and charts. 

Finally, the authors want to acknowledge the contributions of former members of 
the Fiistories Section who reviewed and commented on several chapters, including 
Lieutenant Colonels Lane Rogers and Gary D. Solis, Majors George R. Dunham, 
Charles D. Melson, and Edward F. Wells, and Dr. V. Keith Fleming, Jr. 

Special mention and most heartfelt thanks go to various interns who have assisted 
with the preparation of this volume. Naval Academy Midshipman Third Class 
Thomas Moninger, who prepared the Chronology of Events, and Maderia School stu- 
dents Ms. Jaime Koepsell and Ms. Sylvia Bunyasi who drafted the initial Command 
and Staft list. Marine Sergeant Neil A. Peterson, a student at the Citadel, sketched 
over half of the draft maps used in this volume. James E. Cypher, a senior at Loyola 
University, in New Orleans, assisted in the tedious but most important final editing 
of the index. Finally, there was Peter M. Yarbo, who as a student at Johns I^opkins, 
for over a year, once a week, took the early morning train from Baltimore to Wash- 
ington, to assist with the project. Peter prepared several of the charts in the appen- 
dices, but even more significantly, he did almost all ot the photographic research, saw 
that the photos were duplicated, and made the initial selection of photographs, orga- 
nizing them by chapter. This book could never have been published at this time with- 
out his specific assistance and that ot the other mterns. 

The authors are also indebted to Dr. Douglas Pike, who opened up his Indochina 
Archives, then located at the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 
Berkeley, for their examination. Mr. Robert J. Destatte, Defense Prisoner of War and 
Missing Personnel Office, U.S. Department of Defense, provided a translation of sev- 
eral published Vietnamese documents. Finally our thanks to those who contributed 
comments on the draft and to our colleagues in the other Defense historical offices, 
who assisted with their advice and comments. In the end, however, the authors alone 
assume sole responsibility for the content of the text, including opinions expressed 
and any errors in fact. 




JACK SHULIMSON 



Table of Contents 



Foreword iii 

Preface v 

Table of Contents vii 

Map Listing xiii 

PART I PRE-TET 1968 1 

Chapter 1 A Puzzling War 2 

III MAP January 1968 2 

MACV and Command Arrangements 3 

South Vietnam and I Corps 6 

The Enemy 9 

Focus on the North 11 

MACV Vis-a-Vis Marines 12 

An Ambivalent Outlook 15 

Chapter 2 The 3d Marine Division and the Barrier 18 

The 3d Marine Division in the DMZ 18 

The Barrier 21 

Chapter 3 The War in the Eastern DMZ in Early and Mid-January 32 

The NVA in the DMZ Sector 32 

Operation Napoleon 37 

Kentucky Operations and the Barrier 40 

Operation Lancaster and Heavy Fighting in Mid-January 52 

Chapter 4 Khe Sanh: Building Up 58 

The Battlefield 58 

The Early Days 59 

Protecting the Investment 6l 

The Isolation of Khe Sanh 61 

The Decision to Hold 65 

The Stage is Set 68 

Sortie to Hill 881 North 70 

The Enemy Plan Unfolds 72 

Chapter 5 The 3d Division War in Southern Quang Tri 

and Northern Thua Thien, Operations Osceola and Neosho 73 

Protecting the Quang Tri Base, Operation Osceola, 1-20 January 1968 .... 73 
Operation Neosho and Operations in the CoBi-Thanh Tan, 

1-20 January 1968 78 

Operation Checkers 83 

Chapter 6 Heavy Fighting and Redeployment: 

The War in Central and Southern I Corps, January 1968 84 

A Time of Transition 84 

The Da Nang TAOR 88 

Operation Auburn: Searching the Go Noi 91 

A Busy Night at Da Nang 97 

Continuing Heavy Fighting and Increasing Uncertainty 99 

Phu Loc Opetations 101 

The Formation and Deployment of Task Force X-Ray 105 

The Cavalry Arrives 107 

The Changed Situation in the North 109 



PART II THE TET OFFENSIVE" 112 

Chapter 7 The Enemy Offensive in the DMZ and Southern Quang Tri, 

20 January— 8 February 113 

The Cua Viet is Threatened 113 

Adjustment of Forces in Southern Quang Tri Province 118 

Heavy Fighting Along the DMZ 119 

A Lull in Leatherneck Square 126 

The Cua Viet Continues to Heat Up 127 

The Battle For Quang Tri City 133 

Tet Aftermath Along the DMZ 137 

Chapter 8 The Tet Offensive at Da Nang 14 1 

Allied Dispositions I4l 

The Enemy Plans His Offensive 142 

The Attack 144 

The Fighting Continues 149 

A Brief Lull and Renewed Fighting 158 

Chapter 9 The Struggle for Hue — Tlie Battle Begins 164 

The Two Faces of Hue 164 

The NVA Attack 164 

Redeployment at Phu Bai and Marines Go to Hue 168 

Chapter 10 The Struggle for Hue — The Second Phase 175 

More Reinforcements 175 

The Beginning of the Advance 3—4 February 180 

Block by Block 5-8 February 185 

Chapter 1 1 The Struggle for Hue — Stalemate in the Old City 192 

A Faltering Campaign 192 

Going Into the Walled City 194 

The Fight for the Tower 199 

Continuing the Advance 201 

Chapter 12 The Struggle for Hue — The Taking of the Citadel and Aftermath . 204 

The Struggle in the Western Citadel 204 

An Estimate of the Situation and Mounting the Offensive 205 

Closing Out Operation Hue City 211 

A Summing Up 213 

PART III AFTER TET, KHE SAHN, AND MINI-TET 224 

Chapter 13 Post-Tet in I Corps 225 

The Immediate Ramifications of the Tet Offensive 225 

Readjustment in I Corps 227 

Readjustments in the U.S. I Corps Command Structure 235 

Planning for the Future 241 

March Operations in the DMZ Sector 241 

March Operations in the Rest of I Corp 246 

Regaining the Initiative 250 

Chapter 14 The Siege of Khe Sanh 255 

Digging In 255 

Opening Moves 258 

"Incoming!" 260 

The Fall of Khe Sanh Village 261 



Reinforcement and Fighting Back 264 

Round Two 269 

The Fall of Lang Vei 273 

The Intensifying Battle 277 

Settling the Score 282 

Operation Pegasus 283 

Chapter 15 The Battle for Dong Ha 291 

Why Dong Ha? 291 

The Fight for Dai Do, The First Day 293 

The Continuing Fight for Dai Do 299 

The End of the First Offensive 304 

The Second Offensive 307 

Chapter 16 Khe Sanh: Final Operations and Evacuation 

16 April-11 July 1968 312 

To Stay or Not to Stay 312 

The "Walking Dead" 313 

Operation Scotland II 316 

Operation Robin 319 

Razing Khe Sanh: Operation Charlie 323 

Chapter 17 Mini-Tet and its Aftermath in Southern I Corps 328 

Going into the Go Noi 328 

Mini-Tet and Operation Mameluke Thrust, May 1968 336 

Operation Allen Brook Continues 339 

Mameluke Thrust Also Continues 343 

PART IV THE WAR CONTINUES: OFFENSIVE AND COUNTER-OFFENSD/E 350 

Chapter 18 3d Division Takes the Offensive 351 

The Enemy Situation 351 

The Offensive Takes Shape 351 

The Eastern DMZ 357 

The Pressure Continues 359 

Into the Western Mountains 364 

Southern Quang Tri and Thua Thien 370 

Chapter 19 The Third Offensive: Da Nang 373 

Indicators 373 

The Storm Breaks 375 

Counterattack 379 

Pursuit 381 

Typhoon Bess 383 

Chapter 20 Autumn Offensive Halted 385 

A New Orientation 385 

The Eastern DMZ 386 

Defeat of the 320th Division 396 

Coastal Quang Tri and Thua Thien: A Shift 410 

Chapter 21 Counteroffensive Operations in Southern ICTZ 4 14 

The Situation in September 4l4 

Operation Maui Peak 418 

The End of Mameluke Thrust and Renewed Attacks on Da Nang 423 

Operation Meade River 425 

Operation Taylor Common 437 



Chapter 22 The 3cl Division's Labors Bear Fruit 443 

EHmination of the Infrastructure 443 

Rough Soldiering 450 

Thua Thien and the End ot the Year 455 

PART V SUPPORTING THE TROOPS 457 

Chapter 23 Marine Air at the Beginning of the Year and 

Air Support of Khe Sanh 458 

Marine Air at the Beginning of the Year 458 

Marine Control of Air 465 

Proposed Changes in Command and Control over 

Marine Air; Operation Niagara, January 1968 471 

Operation Niagara and Air Resupply in the Defense of Khe Sanh 475 

Chapter 24 A Matter of Doctrine: Marine Air and Single Manager 487 

The Establishment of Single Manager 487 

Point, Counterpoint 497 

The Continuing Debate 509 

Chapter 25 A Question of Helicopters 516 

Another Debate 516 

The Need for Lighter Aircraft 519 

To Keep the Mediums and Heavies Elying 522 

Another Look at Helicopter Air-Ground Relations 526 

Chapter 26 Artillery and Reconnaissance Support in III MAF 533 

Marine Artillery Reshuffles 533 

The Guns in the North 537 

Mini-Tet and the Fall of Ngog Tavak and Kham Due 541 

Operations Drumfire II and Thor — Guns Across the Border 543 

Fire Base Tactics 548 

Marine Reconnaissance Operations 552 

Chapter 27 Manpower Policies and Realities 557 

Personnel Turnover 557 

The Quality Issue and Project 100,000 559 

Training 561 

The Search for Junior Leaders 562 

Discipline 565 

Morale 566 

The Aviation Shortage 569 

Filling the Ranks in Vietnam: Too Many Billets, Too Few Marines 571 

The Deployment of Regimental Landing Team 27 572 

Reserve Callup? 574 

The Bloodiest Month, The Bloodiest Year 575 

Foxhole Strength: Still Too Few Marines 576 

The Return of RLT 27 578 

The End of the Year 579 

The Marine Corps and the Draft 580 

The Marine Corps Transformed 581 

Chapter 28 Backing Up The Troops 582 

A Division of Responsibility 582 

Naval Logistic Support 586 

Marine Engineers . 588 

The FLC Continues to Cope 592 



PART VI OTHER PERSPECTIVES: 

PACIFICATION AND MARINES OUTSIDE OF III MAF 595 

Chapter 29 Pacification 596 

Prelude 596 

The Tet Offensives and Operation Recovery 604 

III MAF and Pacification 607 

Homicide in the Countryside 6l4 

Changing Attitudes 6l6 

The Boys Next Door: The Combined Action Program 617 

The Accelerated Pacification Plan 630 

Chapter 30 Outside of III MAF: 

The Special Landing Forces, Marine Advisors, and Others 631 

The 9th MAB and the SLFs 631 

Sub-Unit 1, 1st Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) .... 639 

Embassy Marines 642 

Individual Marines in Saigon and Elsewhere in Vietnam 644 

Chapter 31 1968: An Overview 652 



NOTES 655 

APPENDICES 

A: Marine Command and Staff List, 1 January-31 December 1968 713 

B: Chronology of Significant Events, January-December 1968 722 

C: Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations 728 

D: Medals of Honor Citations, 1968 735 

E: Distribution of Personnel 745 

F: Combined Action Program Expansion — 1968 753 

G: NVA/VC Casualties Reported by III MAF Units 756 

H: Marine Aircraft, Support and Ordnance 760 

I: List of Reviewers 761 

J: Tables of Organization 764 

INDEX 775 



Map Listing 



Reference Map, I Corps Tactical Zone xiv 

Allied Headquarters, January 1968 9 

3d Marine Division Areas of Operation and the Strong Point Obstacle System . . 22 

Enemy Order of Battle DMZ/Quang Tri Province 33 

Major Enemy Units in Northern Quang Tri, January 1968 36 

Unit Headquarters in Quang Tri Province 43 

Allied and Enemy Units in the Khe Sanh Area, January 1968 71 

Operations Osceola and Neosho, January 1968 77 

1st Marine Division Area of Operations, Da Nang, January 1968 88 

Operation Auburn, Go Noi Island, December 1967— January 1968 96 

Phu Loc, 1 January 1968 102 

Task Force X-Ray, 15 January 1968 108 

Badger Catch/Saline Area of Operations, January 1968 114 

Clearing of Route 9, 24-29 January 1968 121 

The Enemy Offensive in the DMZ & Southern Quang Tri, 

20 January-8 February 1968 135 

Tet Offensive at Da Nang, 30 January— February, 1968 150 

The Fight for Hue, 31 January-February 1968 165 

Task Force X-Ray, 31 January 1968 170 

Copy of Briefing Map and Commentary (Hue) 196 

2/5 Area of Operations, 24-27 February 1968 212 

Post Tet in I Corps, 1968 226 

Marine and Allied Units at Khe Sanh, February 1968 262 

Allied and Enemy Positions, 30 April 1968, in and around Dai Do 295 

3/7 Participation in Operation Allen Brook, 15May-18 May 1968 331 

17 May 1968, Le Nam (1) NVA Ambush 332 

Operation Mameluke Thrust, May 1968 336 

The Third Offensive, Da Nang Area Operations, August 1968 374 

Fire Support Bases in Northwestern Quang Tri 400 

Photocopy of III MAE Briefing Map (Nov-Decl968) 415 

Operation Maui Peak, Opening Moves, 6 October 1968 418 

Meade River AO, 20 November-9 December 1968 425 

Operation Taylor Common, December 1968 438 

Fire Support Bases in Southwestern Quang Tri 450 

Photocopy of Northern I Corps Briefing Map (Nov-Dec 1968) 454 



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PARTI 
PRE-TET 1968 



CHAPTER 1 

A Puzzling War 

/// MAF January 1968 — MACV and Command Arrangements — South Vietnam andl Corps 

The Enemy — Focus on the North — MACV Vis-a-Vis Marines — An Ambivalent Outlook 



III MAF January 1968 

After more than two and a half years since the 
commitment of major U.S. combat forces to the war 
in Vietnam, the III Marine Amphibious Force (III 
MAF) entered 1968 with portents of a possible cli- 
max to the conflict. American intelligence indicat- 
ed a buildup ot enemy forces throughout South 
Vietnam and especially in the northern border 
region. Regiments from three North Vietnamese 
Army (NVA) divisions massed in the Demilitarized 
Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Vietnams and in Laos 
near the isolated Marine base at Khe Sanh. To 
counter this threat, the American command pre- 
pared to reinforce the Marines in I Corps Tactical 
Zone (ICTZ), the five northern provinces in South 
Vietnam. Although 1967 ended and 1968 began 
with the usual holiday truces between the opposing 
forces (more honored in the breach than in the 
observance), the Marines girded themselves for 
future heavy fighting. 

With its headquarters at the sprawling and central- 
ly located Da Nang base, III MAF at the beginning of 
January 1968 numbered more than 100,000 Marines, 
sailors, and soldiers. Lieutenant General Robert E. 
Cushman, Jr., Naval Academy Class of 1935 and Com- 
manding General, III MAF, since the previous June, 
had under his command two reinforced Marine divi- 
sions, the 1st and 3d; a U.S. Army division, the Amer- 
ical; the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW); and the 
Force Logistic Command. Supplementing these units 
and temporarily attached to III MAF were the nearly 
3,000 Marines of the Seventh Fleet's two special land- 
ing forces (SLFs). Part of the U.S. Pacific Command's 
strategic reserve, the SLFs each consisted of a Marine 
battalion landing team (BLT), a battalion reinforced by 
supporting elements and a helicopter squadron. In 
addition, the III MAF commander had "coordinating 
authority" over the four-battalion Republic of Korea 
(ROK) 2d Marine Brigade (meaning orders to the 
Koreans took the form of requests). Including the 
ROK Marines, General Cushman had available 40 
infantry battalions and 23 Marine aircraft squadrons in 




Department or Dc-ttnsc Photo (USMCj A192t4" 
Aiarim LtGen Robert E. Cushman. Commanding General, 
III Marine Amphibious Force, returns a salute during a cer- 
emony at Da Nang. By January 1968. Ill MAF. the senior 
U.S. command in I Corps, the five northern provitices of South 
Vietnam, equalled a field army in size. 

the III MAF area of operations, extending some 220 
miles from the DMZ in the north to the border with II 
Corps Tactical Zone in the south.' 

The 53-year-old Cushman, commanding nearly a 
field army in size, had multiple responsibilities which 
had grown apace with the expansion of III IVIAF from 
the original Marine contingent, the 5,000-man 9th 
Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB), which had 
landed at Da Nang in March 1965. As the senior U.S. 
general officer in I Corps, General Cushman wore sev- 
eral "hats." As well as Commanding General, III MAF, 
he was both the U.S. I Corps "Area Coordinator" and 
"Senior Advisor." In one capacity or another he was 
responsible for all U.S. forces in the northern five 
provinces.- 

Well respected in the Corps, with a reputation for 
intelligence and political adroitness. General Cushman 
brought a broad background in both military and 
national affairs to his duties at III MAF. The native 
Minnesotan, a battalion commander in World War II, 
was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism at Guam. Fol- 
lowing the war, he served as an instructor at the Marine 



A PUZZLING WAR 



Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia, and then headed 
the Amphibious Warfare Branch, Office of Naval 
Research, in Washington. After two years with the 
Central Intelligence Agency and a promotion to 
colonel, General Cushman joined the staff of the Com- 
mander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic 
and Mediterranean Fleet, in London, and then returned 
to the United States as a member of the faculty of the 
Armed Forces Staff College. In 1956, he commanded 
an infantry regiment, the 2d Marines, at Camp Leje- 
une, North Carolina, and the following year became 
the assistant for national security affairs to then-Vice 
President Richard M. Nixon. 

Following promotion to general officer rank and a 
tour with the 3d Marine Division on Okinawa as assis- 
tant division and then division commander. General 
Cushman returned to Washington in 1962 where he 
filled the positions of assistant chief of staff for intelli- 
gence and then for operations at Headquarters, Marine 
Corps. In 1964, he became commander of Marine 
Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, California, where in 
June 1966 he formed the 5th Marine Division to meet 
the increasing manpower demands caused by the Viet- 
nam War. Arriving in Vietnam in April 1967 as 
Deputy Commander, III MAF, General Cushman on 1 
June 1967 relieved Lieutenant General Lewis W Walt 

Army Gen William C. Westmoreland. Commander, U.S. 
Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, visits a Marine 
battalion command post south of Da Nang. Gen West- 
moreland is the senior U.S. military commander in South 
Vietnam. 

Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A371378 




as commanding general. Cushman 's diverse experience 
would serve him in good stead to face the complica- 
tions of command in Vietnam. J 

MACV and Conwiand Arrangements 

As the war expanded, command arrangements, like 
the U.S. commitment, evolved over time without a 
master plan. Having originated in January 1962 as a 
small advisory organization, the U.S. Military Assis- 
tance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), in January 
1968 totaled nearly 500,000 and, by that time, had 
taken over from the South Vietnamese much of the 
large-unit war. Army General William C. Westmore- 
land, who became Commander, USMACV, in June 
1964, had presided over the buildup and commit- 
ment of U.S. troops to battle. A ramrod-straight West 
Pointer, and, indeed, former Superintendent of the 
U.S. Military Academy, Westmoreland had full 
responsibility for the conduct of the war in the south 
and for all U.S. forces based there. He, however, exer- 
cised this authority through the U.S. chain of com- 
mand reaching back to Washington. MACV, itself, 
was a unified command directly subordinate to the 
U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii. The 
Commander-in-Chief Pacific (CinCPac), Admiral 
Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, gave Westmoreland a rela- 
tively free hand over ground and air operations in the 
south, but retained personal direction of the air cam- 
paign over most of North Vietnam.^' 

The control of U.S. air activity and forces in South- 
east Asia was a complicated aftair. While General 
Westmoreland directed the bombing in Route Pack- 
age 1 , the southern sector of North Vietnam above the 
DMZ, he shared authority with the U.S. Ambassador 
to Laos for the "Steel Tiger/Tiger Hound" air opera- 
tions over that country. The Seventh Air Force provid- 
ed air support for MACV from airfields both in the 
Republic of Vietnam and from Thailand. The 46,000 
Seventh Air Force personnel in South Vietnam came 
under the operational control of General Westmore- 
land, while the Thailand units were under U.S. Air 
Forces, Pacific, which in turn reported to Admiral 
Sharp. General William W "Spike" Momyer, the 
Commanding General, Seventh Air Force, was also the 
MACV Deputy Commander for Air and had overall 
responsibility for the air defense of South Vietnam and 



■ L!.S. Air Force Historian Wayne Thompson observed that "\\";ush- 
ington often dealt directly with Westmoreland and cut out Sharp." Dr. 
Wayne Thompson, Air Force History Support Office, Comments on 
draft chapter, dtd 23Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File) 



THE DEFINING YEAR 









MACV ORGANIZATK 


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MACV 
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ALL USAF 
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ALL USMC 

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COMBAT FORCES 

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air support for Army and allied forces. The 1st Marine 
Aircrajft Wing, however, remained directly under III 
MAF and flew close air support for Marine and allied 
units in I Corps.' 

In South Vietnam, General Westmoreland con- 
trolled his tactical ground forces through three region- 
al commands, roughly corresponding with the corps 
areas of the Republic of Vietnam. Ill MAF was in the 
north in I Corps; the U.S. Army's I Field Force, Viet- 
nam, was in II Corps, consisting of the central high- 
lands and central coastal provinces of South Vietnam; 
and the Army's II Field Force, Vietnam, operated both 
in III Corps, centered around the capital city of Saigon, 
and IV Corps, which included the populous Mekong 
Delta. All told, MACV ground combat forces, includ- 
ing Marines and "Free World" troops from Korea, Aus- 
tralia, and Thailand consisted of 11 divisions and 14 
separate brigades and task forces adding up to 118 
maneuver battalions counting both infantry and tank 
units. Some 60 Army artillery battalions, two heavily 
reinforced Marine artillery regiments, a 500-man New 
Zealand artillery battalion, 11 Marine helicopter 
squadrons, and 96 Army aviation companies support- 
ed these maneuver units.'' 

The Navy and the Army divided the logistic sup- 
port for U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam. General 



Westmoreland retained direct command of the Army 
component, the U.S. Army, Vietnam, and had opera- 
tional control of the naval, U.S. Naval Forces, Viet- 
nam. The latter, through its 22,000-man Naval Sup- 
port Activity, Da Nang, which included the 3d Naval 
Construction Brigade, furnished heavy engineering 
and common item supplies for all U.S. and Korean 
forces in I Corps. U.S. Army, Vietnam, through its 
subordinate engineer and logistic commands, had the 
responsibility for the remaining corps areas. Looking 
back several years later. General Westmoreland 
observed that by the "beginning of '68 we had our 
logistic structure finished: ports and airfields were 
basically completed ...."' 

The various U.S. service components in South 
Vietnam complicated and occasionally blurred the 
command arrangements within MACV. For example, 
under the operational control of MACV, General 
Cushman also reported directly through Marine 
channels to the Commanding General, Fleet Marine 
Force, Pacific, Lieutenant General Victor H. "Brute" 
Krulak. Krulak retained administrative command 
and overall responsibility for the readiness, training, 
and logistic support ot all Marine forces in the Pacif- 
ic. Although not in the operational chain of com- 
mand, General Krulak was not one to deny General 



A PUZZLING WAR 



Cushman the benefit of his advice.* The other service 
components also had divisions of authority. General 
Momyer's Seventh Air Force reported not only 
administratively to U.S. Air Forces, Pacific, but oper- 
ationally to that command for the "Rolling Thunder" 
air campaign over North Vietnam. Moreover, the 
question of control of Marine fixed-wing air remained 
a matter of contention between Generals Momyer and 
Cushman, with General Westmoreland often acting 
as mediator.* 

Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, Commander, U.S. 
Naval Forces, Vietnam, also had multiple responsibili- 
ties and mixed channels of command. While under the 
operational control of MACV, he reported administra- 
tively through the Seventh Fleet chain of command to 
the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet. In addition to 
his logistic responsibilities, Admiral Veth directed the 
coastal and maritime anti-infiltration campaign and 
was the overall commander of the Navy's segment of 
the Mobile Riverine Force operating with an Army 
brigade in the Mekong Delta. In this divided jurisdic- 
tion, both the senior Army commander and Admiral 
Veth permitted the flotilla and brigade commanders 
flexibility in making local command arrangements .9 

Obfuscating the command lines even further were 
MACV relations with external U.S. commands, the 
U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam, and the South Viet- 
namese themselves. For naval gunfire support and use 
of the Marine Special Landing Forces on board the 
ships of the Navy Amphibious Ready Groups, Gener- 
al Westmoreland had to coordinate with the Seventh 
Fleet through CinCPac channels. In addition to the 
amphibious forces, MACV also coordinated through 
the same Navy channels the carrier aircraft of Seventh 
Fleet Task Force 77 to supplement the Seventh Air 
Force and Marine air support of ground forces in South 
Vietnam. Another chain of command existed with the 



*The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. 
Greene, Jr., in Washington also had his perceptions on the conduct of 
the war. In his comments on the draft of this chapter, General Greene 
wrote that he was in daily communication with General Krulak in 
Hawaii. The latter "kept me fully informed and enabled me to effi- 
ciently do business with the Joint Chiefs . . . and with the White House 
and other echelons." According to Greene, he did not believe the other 
Chiefs were kept "fully informed by Gen Westmoreland" and that he 
[Greene] personally "briefed the Vice President regularly — once a 
week — privately at the White House — at his request — since he was not 
kept properly informed by the Pres[ident] or the White House staff!" 
General Greene believed that General Westmoreland "objected to my 
liaison with General Krulak," but never made an issue of the matter. 
Gen Wallace M. Greene, Jr., Comments on draft Ms, dtd 110ct94 
(Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Greene Comments, 1994. 



Strategic Air Command in order to process requests for 
the use of Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses in bombing 
missions over the south.'" 

General Westmoreland had a unique relationship 
with the U.S. Embassy. In April of 1967 he had taken 
over from the Embassy responsibility for the U.S. paci- 
fication assistance program. The newly created Civil 
Operations and Revolutionary Development Support 
(CORDS) agency became pait of MACV and its head, 
the outspoken former presidential advisor, Robert J. 
Komer, served as Deputy ComUSMACV for CORDS 
under Westmoreland. Yet the MACV commander 
shared overall policy formulation in South Vietnam 
with the U.S. Ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, a distin- 
guished career diplomat. Ambassador Bunker chaired 
and General Westmoreland was a member of the Mis- 
sion Council, the central U.S. policy and coordinating 
body within the country. Westmoreland and the 
Ambassador worked in harmony. The MACV com- 
mander later wrote: "My military colleagues and I 
gained a staunch supporter in Ellsworth Bunker 
Although his military experience was limited to 
artillery ROTC at Yale University 50 years before, he 
understood the application of power""'* 

The U.S. relationship with the South Vietnamese 
military was a delicate one. General Westmoreland did 
not have command of the South Vietnamese Armed 
Forces and, indeed, rejected the idea of a combined 
U.S./RVN command headquarters. He believed it 
important that the South Vietnamese knew "that I rec- 
ognized that they were running their own country, that 
I was no pro-consul or high commissioner."'- In his 
opinion, his role as senior U.S. advisor to the South 
Vietnamese Joint General Staff gave him "defacto con- 
trol over the scope of operations."'? The watchwords 
were close consultation and coordination. As one histo- 
rian observed, the command arrangements tor the 
Vietnam War "were not the best they could have been, 
but they did work."i^ 



**Army historian Graham A. Cosmas obser\'ed that the CORDS 
relationship with MACV was more complex than it appeared on chain 
of command charts: "The CORDS organization was a part of the MACV 
staff, although in practice it functioned with a high degree ot autono- 
my," Cosmas also noted that when MACV was established in 1962, the 
State Department and Department of Defense "informally agreed that 
on policy matters the Ambassador in SVN was 'prinuis inter pares'ifiTSt 
among equals], and this remained the case in 1968. Bunker was head of 
the US country team, and ComUSMACV while as a field commander 
nominally independent of him, in practice deferred to Bunker on polit- 
ical and policy matters." Dr. Graham A. Cosmas, CMH, Comments on 
draft chapter, dtd 23Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



South Vietnam and I Corps 

Beginning with the French-Viet Minh struggle 
following World War II, Vietnam had been at war 
for more than 20 years except for a brief respite dur- 
ing the mid-1950s. After the French defeat at Dien 
Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords in 1954 resulted in 
the breakup of what had been French Indochina and 
divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. The Viet Minh 
leader. Ho Chi Minh, established the Democratic 
Republic of Vietnam under the rule of the Commu- 
nist Lao Dong Party in the north. South of the 17th 
Parallel, Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong anti-Communist 
Vietnamese nationalist, became the first president of 
the Republic of Vietnam, displacing Bao Dai, the 
former Vietnamese Emperor under the French. 

Through the 1950s and into I960, Diem consol- 
idated his power in the south against what many 
considered insurmountable odds. He defeated vari- 
ous sectarian armies, suppressed his political ene- 
mies, and created a seemingly viable government. 
Assisted initially by French and American military 
advisory groups. Diem strengthened his armed 
forces to meet any armed thrust from the north. 
South Vietnam appeared to represent a force for sta- 
bility against what American policy makers per- 
ceived as a Communist drive for domination of 
Southeast Asia. 

These relatively halcyon days were soon over. By 
the early 1960s, Diem and his regime were under 
heavy pressure in both the political and military are- 
nas. Frustrated by Diem's refusal to hold joint elec- 
tions as called for by the Geneva Accords that would 
have unified the two Vietnams, the North Vietnamese 
began as early as 1959 the sub-rosa campaign to bring 
down the southern government. By 1961, the South 
Vietnamese were fully engaged in counter-guerrilla 
operations against the Viet Cong (VC), a deprecatory 
name given to the southern Communists. With the 
introduction of U.S. helicopter units and the expan- 
sion of the American advisory effort in 1962, the 
South Vietnamese started to make measurable gains 
against the Communist forces. Surviving an aborted 
coup by a group of "Young Turk" officers in I960, 
Diem progressively alienated important segments of 
South Vietnamese society. In 1963, South Vietnamese 
Buddhists, led by their clergy, took to the streets in 
increasingly violent demonstrations against restrictive 
measures of the Catholic-dominated Diem govern- 
ment. By November, the South Vietnamese military, 
with American knowledge if not consent, threw over 




Photo courtesy of Col Edwin S. Schick, USMC (Ret) 
South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. wearing 
his aviators scarf, is seen greeting Marine officers on a visit 
to I Corps. President Nguyen Van Thieii, a South Viet- 
namese Army general, eventually overshadowed the more 
flamboyant Ky in the inner circles of the Vietnamese military 
who ran the nation. 

Diem. South Vietnamese officers killed the deposed 
president the day after the coup. 

The period after the death of Diem was one of tur- 
moil and disintegration. Military' leaders and politi- 
cians jockeyed for position with one leader emerging 
and then another. Simultaneously, the Communists 
reinforced their forces in the south with regular units 
from the north. The war was going badly and South 
Vietnam appeared ripe for the plucking. 

It was not until 1965 that the situation stabilized. 
The infusion of U.S. troops staved off defeat at the 
hands of the North Vietnamese. In June, the South 
Vietnamese military ended the political chaos by 
assuming full control of the reins of government. A 
military council, headed by Army General Nguyen 
Van Thieu and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, directed 
South Vietnamese affairs for the next few years. 

By the end of 1967, the South Vietnamese govern- 
ment had established a constitutional claim to legiti- 
macy. Overcoming renewed Buddhist agitation in the 
spring of 1966, the ruling military council held elec- 
tions for a constitutional convention in September 
1966. Following the promulgation of the new consti- 
tution, the South Vietnamese, in September 1967, 
elected Thieu and Ky, heading a military slate of can- 
didates, as President and Vice-President respectively of 
the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).'' 

The South Vietnamese military establishment was 
still the dominant factor in South Vietnam. By January 
1968, government decrees, although not yet imple- 



A PUZZLING WAR 



merited, called for partial mobilization, reduction of 
student deferments, and increased draft: calls. The 
Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVNAF) 
totaled more than 620,000 men. These included a 
small Air Force of 15,000 men, a Navy of nearly 
18,000, an even smaller Marine Corps of 8,000, nearly 
300,000 in the Army, and another 291,000 m the local 
militia, the Regional and Popular Forces (RFs and 
PFs). Nominally, all of the service military comman- 
ders reported directly to the Chief of the Joint General 
Staff, General Cao Van Vien, who also commanded the 
Army. In fact, however, the actual control of the mili- 
tary remained with the coalition of senior generals cen- 
tered around President Thieu who formed the military 
council that had run the country since 1965."'' 

Deployed and recruited generally along regional 
lines, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 
consisted of 10 infantry divisions, two separate regi- 
ments, an airborne division, armor and ranger com- 
mands, a Special Forces group, and supporting ele- 
ments. If desertion rates were indicative of efficiency 
and morale, the ARVN had made vast strides in 1967 
with almost a 30 percent reduction from the previous 
year. Part of this dramatic improvement, however, 
probably reflected that American forces had largely 
taken over the large-unit war while the ARVN con- 
centrated on pacification. With the exception of the 
Marines and airborne, who made up the South Viet- 
namese general reserve, the ARVN units normally con- 
fined themselves to operations in their assigned corps 
tactical zones. '^ 

The corps tactical zones of South Vietnam were 
more than military subdivisions; they were also region- 
al and political entities. None loomed larger in impor- 
tance than the northernmost corps area, ICTZ. With 
its military value enhanced by geographic, economic, 
and cultural considerations, as well as the significant 
buildup of enemy forces in the DMZ and Khe Sanh 
sectors, I Corps had become the focus of the war. In fact 
one Marine commander, Lieutenant General Krulak, 
maintained: "... the bulk ot the war is in the I Corps 
Tactical Zone."is 

If the map of Vietnam resembles the traditional 
peasant carrying pole with a rice basket on either end, 
the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong in 
the south, I Corps lay about in the upper middle of the 
shaft. With a total of 10,800 square miles and less than 
3,000,000 of the 16,500,000 inhabitants of South 
Vietnam, I Corps was the second smallest of the Corps 
tactical zones in area and the smallest in population. 
Although no wider than 75 miles at any one point and 



35 miles at its narrowest, I Corps contained three dis- 
tinct regions: the rugged Annamite chain in the west 
with some peaks over 6,000 feet, a piedmont area of 
densely vegetated hills interlaced by river valleys, and 
the coastal lowlands. The central southern coastal low- 
lands below Da Nang consist of some of the richest 
farm lands and densest concentration of population in 
all of Vietnam. Influenced by the northeast or winter 
monsoon (lasting from October to February), the 
weather in this sector, one of the wettest in all of South 
Vietnam, permits two annual growing seasons. The 
two major cities in I Corps, Hue, the old imperial Viet- 
namese capital and major agricultural market center, 
and Da Nang, an important seaport, added to the eco- 
nomic worth of the region. Despite its limited size, 
ICTZ was indeed a valuable prize.'" 

Part of what had been Annam in Indochina, I Corps 
had a distinctive regional cast. With their cultural cen- 
ter at Hue, the Annamites traditionally looked down 
upon both the Tonkinese from the north and the south- 
erners from Saigon and the Mekong Delta. The Bud- 
dhist agitation against Diem had begun in I Corps and, 
in 1966, the Buddhist "revolt" against the central gov- 
ernment again broke out in Da Nang and Hue after the 
removal of the popular I Corps commander. General 
Nguyen Chanh Thi. After the suppression of the 1966 
"Struggle Movement," I Corps was politically quies- 
cent. This eventual successor. General Hoang Xuan 
Lam, having neither the ambition nor the charisma of 
his predecessor, exercised his power cautiously.-" 

As in the rest of South Vietnam, the political and 
civilian apparatus in I Corps were intertwined, but dis- 
tinct from one another. General Lam, as I Corps com- 
mander, appointed the five province chiefs, usually 
military officers, who in turn selected the district 
chiefs, again usually military officers. The province and 
district chiefs administered their respective domains 
and also controlled the local militia, the Regional and 
Popular Forces. Regional Forces operated under the 
province chief while Popular Forces usually confined 
their activities to a particular district. Under another 
chain of command. General Lam had control of the 
regular military forces in I Corps. These consisted of 
two divisions, the 1st and 2d; an independent regi- 
ment, the 51st; and two airborne battalions from the 
general reserve; totaling some 34,000 troops. Includ- 
ing the Regional and Popular forces, the South Viet- 
namese mustered some 80,000 men under arms in 1 
Corps Tactical Zone.-' 

Vulnerable to direct attack and infiltration chrough 
the DMZ from North Vietnam to the nortli and from 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Abel Collection Photo 
South Vietnamese LtGen Hoang Xuan Lam. Commanding General of I Corps, center is shown in con- 
versation with U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen Leonard F. Chapman, left, and the III MAF 
commander. LtGen Robert E. Cushman. outside of the I Corps Headquarters located in Da Nang. 



Laos to the west, I Corps, by January 1968, resembled 
an armed camp with a quarter of a million U.S., South 
Vietnamese, and allied troops deployed within its bor- 
ders. The 3d Marine Division and 1st ARVN Division 
were responsible for the northern two provinces of 
Quang Tri and Thua Thien. Similarly, the U.S. Army's 
Americal Division and the ARVN 2d Division operat- 
ed in the two southern provinces of Quang Tin and 
Quang Ngai. The 1st Marine Division and the 51st 
ARVN Regiment provided the protection for the cen- 
tral province of Quang Nam which contained I Corps 
headquarters at Da Nang, the Da Nang Airbase, the 
Quang Da Special Sector, and more than 35 percent of 
the I Corps population.-- 

The relationship between the American and South 
Vietnamese commands in I Corps paralleled the 
arrangement at the national level. As Senior Advisor, 
General Cushman had a direct channel to General 
Lam. The Marine general later related that he had a 
rapport with General Lam, whom he considered an 
excellent administrative and political leader and "a 
good general considering his resources. . ." but no 
"Julius Caesar or . . . Napoleon. "^^ As with General 
Westmoreland and General Vien, the emphasis was on 
advice and close coordination. To facilitate this coor- 
dination, each of the American and South Vietnamese 
units had its specific tactical area of responsibility, 
where its commander had a relatively free rein. More- 
over, in accordance with the combined 1967 plan 



worked out by the MACV and Republic of Vietnam 
Joint General Staff, the Vietnamese units were taking 
an increased proportion of the pacification and revolu- 
tionary development mission. Still the ARVN and 
American units had to operate together. The following 
excerpt from a 3d Marine Division report exemplifies 
the working relations between the American and 
South Vietnamese units in general, and the 3d Marine 
Division and 1st ARVN Division in particular: 

The basic concept underlying command relations 
between the division and RVNAF has been one of cooper- 
ation and coordination in the conduct of operations. ... As 
a matter of practice, decisions regarding multi-battalion 
combined Marine/ARVN operations are made by personal 
liaison between CG 3d Marine Division and CG 1st 
ARVN Division. 

After the two commanders approved a basic concept 
of operation: 

the required staff liaison is accomplished and plans are 
finalized. When ptacticable, co-located command posts 
are established to facilitate coordination, cooperation, 
mutual assistance, and decision making. 

The report concluded: 

The 1st ARVN Division is an aggressive, well-led 
fighting force. Its commander is responsive to the desir- 
ability of combined/coordinated operations and invari- 
ably produces required forces. Numerous operations 
have instilled a sense of mutual respect and confidence 
between 1st ARVN Division and Marine personnel. ^^ 



A PUZZLING WAR 



These command procedures worked with the eUte 
1st ARVN Division, but less so with the average 
ARVN unit. 

The Enemy 

From a Western perspective, the Communist 
command and control apparatus appeared complex 
and murky, yet there was no doubt about who was in 
charge. From the beginning of the Viet Cong insur- 



gency, the North Vietnamese directed the war. 
According to recent revelations by North Vietnamese 
leaders, the 15 th Plenary Session of the Central Com- 
mittee of the Lao Dong Party in 1959 decided on a 
determined policy to overthrow by force the govern- 
ment of South Vietnam. In July of that year, men and 
material began to flow over the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" 
through Laos and Cambodia into the south. The 
"Second Indochina War" had started.-' 



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JANUARY 1968 

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10 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



The North Vietnamese masked their direct control 
through a web of cover organizations. In I960, the 
Communists announced the formation of the Nation- 
al Front for the Liberation ot South Vietnam (NLF), a 
so-called coalition of "democratic forces" to lead the 
struggle against the South Vietnamese government 
and give the appearance of a popular uprising. Even 
within the Communist apparatus in the south, the 
North Vietnamese went to extraordinary lengths to 
conceal their participation. In late 1961, the Com- 
munists changed the name of their party in the south 
from the Lao Dong (Worker's Party) to the People's 
Revolutionary Party. Shortly afterward, they created 
the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) to 
coordinate both the political and military aspects of 
the war in the south. Under COSVN, a myriad of 
interlocking regional, provincial, and district com- 
mittees tightly controlled the Viet Cong political 
infrastructure and military forces down to the hamlet 
and village level. Yet, COSVN, itself, reported direct- 
ly to the Politburo of the Lao Dong Party of North 
Vietnam through the Reunification Department with 
its headquarters in Hanoi.^^ 

The extent of North Vietnamese involvement and 
control of the war was more obvious in northern 
South Vietnam than elsewhere. Very early, the Com- 
munists separated the two northern provinces of 
Quang Tri and Thua Thien from their Military Region 
(MR) V, which roughly corresponded to I and II 
Corps. MR Tri-Thien-H//e, as the new region was 
named, came directly under the North Vietnamese 
high command rather than COSVN. All told, "three 
ill-defined military headquarters" in what had been 
part oi MR V reported directly through North Viet- 
namese channels. In addition to Tri-Thien- Hue, there 
were the B—3 Front, which controlled military oper- 
ations in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, 
and the DMZ Front, which apparently had command 
of all units in the DMZ sector and at Khe Sanh. 
Despite denials and elaborate attempts by the North 
Vietnamese to cover troop movements through con- 
stantly changing unit designations, American intelli- 
gence in 1967 identified seven North Vietnamese 
Army divisions within South Vietnam, five of these 
divisions in I and II Corps. -^ 

By the end of the year MACV held in its order of 
battle of enemy forces some 216,000 troops. These 
included some 51,000 North Vietnamese regulars, 
60,000 Viet Cong main and local forces, and about 
70,000 fiill-time guerrillas. About 35,000 adminis- 
trative troops rounded out the total. The MACV esti- 



mate, however, omitted certain categories such as VC 
"self-defense" forces and other irregulars and some 
70,000 political cadre. Although extensive disagree- 
ment existed within the U.S. intelligence community 
over these exclusions and the total strength of the 
enemy, the numbers of regulars and full-time guerril- 
las were largely accepted.-'* As General Westmoreland 
later explained: "Intelligence is at best an imprecise 
science: it is not like counting beans; it is more like 
estimating cockroaches. . . ."-"> More open to question 
was the MACV claim that the total enemy strength 
had diminished.^"* 

From an American perspective, the Communists 
had suffered only defeats since the U.S. intervention 
in the war in 1965. American units in extensive oper- 
ations ranging the length and breath of South Viet- 
nam had taken a large toll of enemy forces. The allies 
turned back with heavy Communist losses every 
thrust the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made 
from the la Drang Valley in the Central Highlands 
during 1965 to the hills around Khe Sanh in the 
spring of 1967. For the year 1967 alone, MACV esti- 
mated the number of enemy killed in battle as more 
than 88,000.^1 

The Communist view of the situation remains 
obscure. In late summer 1967, the North Vietnamese 
Defense Minister and architect of the Dien Bien Phu 
victory. General Vo Nguyen Giap, wrote: "... the 
situation has never been as favorable as it is now. The 
armed forces and people have stood up to fight the 
enemy and are achieving one great victory after 
another."'- Yet, apparently there was divided opinion 
among the North Vietnamese leadership as to the 
best course of action. There were the advocates of a 
reversion to guerrilla warfare and a protracted war 
while others argued in favor of taking the offensive 
against the allies and especially the Americans on all 
fronts. Because of the extraordinary secretiveness and 
paranoia within the higher reaches of both the Lao 
Dong Party and the North Vietnamese government, 
neither the extent of these differences nor even the 
makeup of the opposing factions was obvious. Much 
of the speculation centered around Giap whom vari- 
ous authorities identified with one or the other of the 
cliques or with neither. What is known is that in June 
1967 the politburo of the party met to assess the sit- 



* Commenting on the MACV perception of the Communist forces, 
General Krukk, the former FMFPac commander, recently wrote: "our 
strategic intelligence was uniformly poor." LtGen Victor H. Krulak, 
Comments on draft chapter, dtd 310ct94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



A PUZZLING WAR 



11 



uation and to resolve the issues. At this meeting in 
which Giap apparently played a large role, the party 
called for "a decisive blow" to "force the U.S. to 
accept military defeat. "^^ 

Within a few months, the Communist forces 
launched the first phase of their 1967-68 Winter- 
Spring Campaign. In a reverse of their usual tactics, the 
North Vietnamese mounted mass assaults lasting over 
a period of several days instead of attempting to disen- 
gage quickly. During September and early October, 
the Marine outpost at Con Thien in the eastern DMZ 
sector came under both infantry attack and artillery 
bombardment. Firing from positions north of the 17th 
Parallel, enemy gunners employed artillery pieces up 
to 152 millimeters. Repulsed at Con Thien, the North 
Vietnamese then tried to overrun the district capital of 
Loc Ninh near the Cambodian border in Binh Long 
Province north of Saigon along Route 13. 

Again forced to pull back after several days of fight- 
ing and suffering extensive losses, the enemy then 
struck in the Central Highlands at Dak To near the 
junction of the Cambodian, Laotian, and South Viet- 
namese borders. After 22 days of bloody combat in 
November, the North Vietnamese forces withdrew 
after once more taking staggering casualties.'^ 

By the end of December, 1967, the enemy 
appeared to be ready to make a fresh assault in north- 
western South Vietnam at Khe Sanh. Following a 
period of relative calm since the battles earlier that 
spring near this isolated Marine base, American 
intelligence picked up reports of North Vietnamese 
troop movements in the sector. Although experienc- 
ing only limited combat activity at Khe Sanh in 
December, one Marine company commander 
declared that he could "smell" the enemy out there. '5 

To MACV, the North Vietnamese strategy 
appeared clear. It was an attempt to draw the allied 
forces into remote areas where the enemy had the 
advantage and then move to a "mobile War of Deci- 
sion. "'<> To Lieutenant General Krulak at FMFPac, 
the enemy's intent was also apparent. Quoting Gen- 
eral Giap, he later wrote: "The primary emphasis [is] 
to draw American units into remote areas and there- 
by facilitate control of the population of the low- 
lands." According to Krulak, the people were the 
final objective. ^7 

Fociis on the North 

The increasing pressure by the North Viet- 
namese Army in late 1967 continued the pattern 



of large-unit operations in the border regions of 
South Vietnam that had characterized the war, 
especially in the north, since 1966. With the first 
incursion of enemy regulars in the summer of that 
year. III MAF shifted forces north. Forced to fill 
the gap left in southern I Corps, MACV in April 
1967 reinforced the Marines in I Corps with the 
Army's Task Force Oregon, which later became the 
Americal Division. After this northward deploy- 
ment, the DMZ sector and Khe Sanh became the 
focus of allied concern. '« 

Given the emphasis on the northern battlefield, 
the Marines at the direction of General Westmore- 
land in April 1967 began the erection of the strong 
point obstacle system (SPOS) along the DMZ to pre- 
vent North Vietnamese infiltration. Dubbed the 
"McNamara Line," after the U.S. Secretary of 
Defense Robert S. McNamara, this so-called "barri- 
er" was to consist of three parts: (1) a linear-manned 
obstacle system in the eastern DMZ sector extending 
some 34 kilometers to the sea and consisting of 
barbed wire, a 600-meter-wide cleared trace, mine- 
fields, and electronic and acoustic sensors; (2) a series 
of strong points to the Laotian border built along 
obvious avenues of approach from the north with 
Khe Sanh as the western anchor; and (3) in Laos, the 
seeding of suspected infiltration routes with sensors 
monitored and supported by aircraft. Strong enemy 
opposition and shortages of men and material slowed 
the progress of the SPOS. By mid-September the 3d 
Marine Division had only completed the clearing of 
the trace from Con Thien to Gio Linh, a distance of 
13 kilometers. Faced with mounting casualties, 
General Westmoreland approved a modification to 
his original plans. In essence, the division was to halt 
all construction of the trace until "after the tactical 
situation had stabilized," and continue only with the 
work on the strong points and base areas. By the end 
of 1967, the Marines had completed work on the 
four strong points and all but two of the base areas. 
In the western sector of the barrier, only the base at 
Khe Sanh existed. '' 

With the 3d Marine Division tied down in fixed 
positions along the eastern DMZ and at Khe Sanh, 
manpower considerations became an overriding con- 
cern for both III MAF and MACV Earlier in the year, 
during the spring, General Westmoreland had 
requested an increase in his authorized strength. Ask- 
ing for a minimum of 80,000 more men (his opti- 
mum figure being nearly 200,000), he planned to 
reinforce the Marines in I Corps with a: least two 



12 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Army divisions. Fearful that these new numbers 
would necessitate a call-up ot the Reserves, Washing- 
ton in the summer of 1967 cut Westmoreland's 
request nearly in half and established a new authorized 
force ceiling of 525,000 men for July 1968. This rep- 
resented an increase of less than 46,000 personnel. 
MACV was hard pressed to reinforce I Corps at all.^"* 
As the war intensified throughout Vietnam in 
late 1967 General Westmoreland persuaded Presi- 
dent Lyndon B. Johnson to establish earlier arrival 
dates lor units already scheduled to deploy to Viet- 
nam. The deployment of the 101st Airborne Divi- 
sion and the 11th Infantry Brigade in December 
provided General Westmoreland some room for 
maneuver. Keeping the 101st and the 1st Cavalry 
Division (Airmobile) as a general country-wide 
reserve, he attached the 11th Brigade to the Ameri- 
cal Division in southern I Corps. Ill MAF began to 
shuffle its units north to reinforce both Khe Sanh 
and the DMZ sectors. ^' 

MACV Vts-a-Vis Marine 

While reinforcing the Marines in I Corps with 
Army units and concentrating his forces in the 
north. General Westmoreland had growing doubts 
about the ability of the Marine command to handle 
the developing situation. Since 1965, senior Marine 
generals conducted a "sotto voce" debate with 
MACV over the direction of the American combat 
effort. Both Generals Krulak and Greene criticized 
the MACV emphasis upon the large-unit major war, 
which they believed failed to provide for population 
security and, moreover, involved the U.S. in a war of 
attrition, which in their opinion, favored the Com- 
munists. They voiced their concerns directly to 
General Westmoreland and through the command 
channels open to them. 



*The question of the total number of American troops required to 
wage the war in South Vietnam was a continually sensitive issue in 
Washington, especially since larger numbers probably involved the 
call-up of Reserve units. General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., the Marine 
Corps Commandant, recalled that sometime in the late 1965 or early 
1966 time-frame he advocated "that a major increase be made in the 
number of U.S. troops" in South Vietnam. According to an estimate 
that his staff made at the time, it would take approximately 595,000 
American troops five years to conclude a successful end to the war. 
According to the analysis, "the number of men of military age becom- 
ing available each year" in North Vietnam as contrasted to the Com- 
munist casualty rate would permit the North Vietnamese "to continue 
the war indefinitely" at the then-level of American troop commitment. 
Greene Comments, 1994. For further discussion of manpower con- 
straints upon Marine forces see Chapter 27. 



Although differing in minor details, the two 
Marine generals in essence advocated increased pres- 
sure upon North Vietnam and basically an "ink blot" 
strategy in South Vietnam. Both Marine generals 
recommended in the north the targeting of air 
strikes against North Vietnamese heavy production 
facilities and transportation hubs and a blockade of 
the North Vietnamese major ports including 
Haiphong. Greene and Krulak emphasized for the 
south a combined U.S. -South Vietnamese campaign 
in targeted areas to eradicate the Communist infra- 
structure in the countryside and replace it with one 
loyal to the South Vietnamese government. This 
pacification campaign would consist of a centralized 
combined allied command structure employing mil- 
itary action together with civic action, and the 
enhancement of the local South Vietnamese militia 
forces and government structure. The concept was 
that initial success would provide the momentum, 
much as a spreading inkblot, for the linking togeth- 
er of the pacified sectors. While not neglecting the 
enemy's main forces, both viewed this war as sec- 
ondary. As General Krulak stated: "The real war is 
among the people" and not in the hinterlands. He 
would engage the Communist regulars for the most 
part only "when a clear opportunity exists to engage 
the VC Main Force or North Vietnamese units on 
terms favorable to ourselves. "'- 

While the two Marine generals received a hearing 
of their views, they enjoyed little success in influenc- 
ing the MACV strategy or overall U.S policy toward 
North Vietnam. According to General Greene, the 
Joint Chiefs were interested in his proposal for a 
coastal pacification campaign but "Westmoreland 
wasn't and being CG MACV his views of the 'big pic- 
ture,' the 'broad arrow' prevailed." In November 
1965, General Krulak wrote directly to Secretary 
McNamara, whom he knew from his days as special 
assistant for counterinsurgency to the Joint Chiefs 
during the Kennedy administration, hinting at some 
divergence between the Marine "saturation formula" 
and the Army "maneuver formula." While allowing 
that both techniques were sound and maneuver had 
its place in the sparsely inhabited highlands, he 
pointedly observed that in the heavily populated area 
south of Da Nang you "cannot shoot everything that 
moves. " He then continued: "We have to separate the 
enemy from the people." According to the Marine 
general, the Defense Secretary told him that the "ink 
blot " theory was "a good idea but too slow." Both 
Generals Greene and Krulak would continue to offer 



A PUZZLING WAR 



13 



their counter-view to the MACV perspective, but 
with httie effect either in Washington or Saigon.''^ 

In Vietnam, from the very inception of its 
responsibility for I Corps, III MAF, the Marine 
command, first under General Walt and then by 
General Cushman, had placed a great deal of 
emphasis on the small-unit war in the villages. The 
Marines had developed several new pacification 
programs to win over the people in the hamlets to 
the government cause. These included: a vigorous 
civic action effort to meet the needs of the local vil- 
lagers, cordon and search "County Fair" operations 
with psychological warfare overtones in the ham- 
lets, coordination of pacification through the I 
Corps Joint Coordinating Council (ICJCC), and 
perhaps most significant, the Combined Action 
Program. This latter program involved the assign- 
ment of a squad of Marines to a Vietnamese Popu- 
lar Forces platoon. The premise was that this inte- 
gration of the Vietnamese militia with the Marines 
would create a bond of understanding and mutual 
interest with the local populace. The Marines main- 
tained that with the villagers on their side, they 
could, as General Cushman stated, "break the con- 
nection between the guerrillas and the infrastruc- 
ture, and the enemy main forces . . . ."-"^ 

Despite the III MAF efforts. General Westmore- 
land and his staff continued to perceive the principal 
mission of the U.S. troops to be the defeat of the 
enemy main forces. The U.S. -South Vietnamese 
1967 Combined Plan basically reflected the MACV 
concept: the South Vietnamese now had responsibil- 
ity for pacification while the U.S. forces were to con- 
duct the large-unit war. General Krulak, the FMF- 
Pac commander, expressed the Marine displeasure in 
July 1967, declaring: "We have seen what we sin- 
cerely believe to be a maldeployment of forces, a mis- 
application of power . . . ."^5 Years later the Marine 
general wrote that these differences between the 
Marines and Westmoreland over pacification went 
"to the heart of the war."-"' 

Despite their differences, the dispute between 
the Marines and MACV never came to a head. 
Although the 1967 Combined Plan called for the 
Americans to take over most of the war against the 
enemy's conventional forces, there was "no clear-cut 
division of responsibility" with the ARVN in this 
area or in pacification.'" Moreover, III MAF still 
operated under its 6 March 1966 Letter of Instruc- 
tion which gave the Marine command a broad all- 
inclusive mission to carry out operations "in support 



of and in coordination with CG I ARVN Corps and 
in other areas of RVN as directed by ComUSMACV 
in order to defeat the VC/NVA and extend GVN 
control over all of South Vietnam. ""^ Rather than 
directly challenge the authority of the Marine com- 
manders. General Westmoreland preferred to issue 
"orders for specific projects that as time passed 
would gradually get the Marines out of their beach- 
heads. "^'' While continuing the "discussion" with 
MACV over pacification. General Cushman also 
wanted no controversies. He remembered, "I soon 
figured out how Westy [General Westmoreland] 
liked to operate and tried to operate the same way, 
and get on with the war and not cause a lot of fric- 
tion for no good reason."^" 

In spite of the efforts of both Westmoreland and 
Cushman to keep relations on an even keel, substantive 
differences continued to exist, and not only over pacifi- 
cation. The "McNamara Line" was a constant irritant. 
General Cushman recalled that he: 

really got in a fit with some of the engineer colonels that 
would come roarmg up from Saigon to see how the 
fence was doing and ... I'd say "Well it's doing fine, go 
up and take a look," which they did. Always had a few 
people around, but we just weren't going out getting 
everybody killed building that stupid fence." 

In what appeared to be an inconsistency, MACV, 
on the one hand, criticized III MAF for lack of mobile 
operations in the rest of I Corps, while, on the other, 
placed a Marine division in fixed positions along the 
DMZ and at Khe Sanh. Major General Rathvon McC. 
Tompkins, the soft-spoken but blunt commander of 
the 3d Marine Division, voiced the opinion of most 
Marines when he later called the entire barrier effort 
"absurd." He pointed out that the original design was 
to stop infiltration, but by the time actual construc- 
tion began, the North Vietnamese were in strength in 
the DMZ "supported by first class artillery." Tomp- 
kins caustically observed, "it was perfectly obvious 
that if there would be an incursion, it would be by 
NVA divisions and not by sneaky-peekies coming 
through at night. "'- 

Unhappy about the Marine defensive measures 
in northern I Corps, General Westmoreland 
believed that General Cushman and his staff "were 
unduly complacent."^" Westmoreland may have 
had some justification about the Marine defenses. 
Major General Raymond L. Murray, Cushman's 
deputy and a highly decorated veteran of both 
World War II and Korea, remarked that the 
Marines were an offensive oryanii^ation, and "often 



14 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



we don't do well in organizing defenses." Murray 
commented that "in many units, the concept of a 
defensive position seemed to be a big long trench 
and just put a bunch of Marines there and shoot at 
any thing that came along rather than truly orga- 
nizing the defense in some depth. ">'* 

Logistics was another area where the Marines and 
MACV had their problems. The Marine experience 
with the Ml 6 rifle was a case in point. In December 
1967, Marine inspectors found 75 percent of 8,413 
rifles in the 3d Marine Division with pitted cham- 
bers, which could result in misfirings. Marine logis- 
ticians planned an extensive replacement of these 
Ml 6s with ones equipped with chromed chambers. 
Another logistic complicating factor was the tempo- 
rary closing in December of the two LST ports in the 
north, Tan My in Thua Thien Province and Dong Ha 
in Quang Tri Province, because of bad weather and 
silting in the shipping channels. If MACV was to 
reinforce the Marines with further Army units, Gen- 
eral Westmoreland had obvious reasons for concern. 
Still, the Marines believed that MACV put undue 
logistic burdens upon them. At the end of the year, 
III MAF and FMFPac protested a MACV require- 
ment for a reduction in the level of stockpiled sup- 
plies. General Murray called such peacetime 
accounting economies in Vietnam part of a "balance 
sheet war." Although acknowledging that these pro- 
cedures "may have saved on waste," Murray main- 
tained they also "took an awful lot of time and effort 
that a military man felt would be better spent in 
other ways."''' 

A myriad of elements compounded the difficul- 
ties in the relationship between MACV and III 
MAF, not the least of which were personality traits 
and service considerations. As General Tompkins 
observed, some Army and Marine rivalry was natur- 



* Other Marine officers also commented about Marine deficiencies 
relative co digging bunkers. Colonel John C. Studt recalled that when 
he was operations officer of the 9th Marines General Westmoreland 
was unhappy "with inadequate Marine bunkers" and directed that the 
Marines send representatives to the U.S. Army's 1st Division "to learn 
how to construct bunkers. As humiliating as this was for Marines, Gen 
Westmoreland was absolutely right: Marines didn't have a clue how to 
construct good bunkers. We taught hasty field fortification and that 
was it." Col John C. Studt, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 22Nov94 
(Vietnam Comment File). Major Gary E. Todd, who served on the 3d 
Marine Division staff, observed that field fortifications "seemed to end 
up with as much of the thing above ground as below, filling sandbags 
with soil to raise walls and parapets." Maj Gary E. Todd, Comments on 
draft chapters, dtd 280ct and •'Nov94 CVietnam Comment File), here- 
after Todd Comments. 



al, "it's the dog and cat business . . . nothing Machi- 
avellian or anything else. "°"^ Army generals spoke 
about Marines using unimaginative tactics, either 
putting their heads down and charging or sitting 
tight on "top of Semper Fidelis."'? Marines replied 
that they trained from the same manuals as the 
Army and employed basically the same infantry tac- 
tics of fire and maneuver.'^ For their part, many 
Marines believed that their performance in Vietnam 
would determine the survival of their Corps. Gener- 
al Krulak remarked that the war would not last for- 
ever and "as soon as it is over, and perhaps before, 
the Marines are going to be faced with the same 
problems that has faced us after every conflict . . . 
self-defense." The Marines would require "a fund of 
irrefutable facts which portray our combat effective- 
ness, our competence, and most of all our readiness 
to fight when the whistle blows. "59 

General 'Westmoreland hardly endeared himself 
to the Marines when inadvertently he became 
involved in the succession for the Commandancy of 
the Marine Corps. Both Generals Krulak and "Walt, 
the former III MAF commander, were leading candi- 
dates to succeed General Greene. A newspaper 
account in late November 1967 carried the story that 
General Westmoreland supported General Walt and 
had recommended him to the President. General 
Westmoreland later wrote that in making out Gen- 
eral Walt's fitness or efficiency report in 1966, he 
had observed "that General Walt was fully qualified 
to be Commandant of the Marine Corps," and that 
this was not meant to be an endorsement of Walt's 
candidacy."' With the selection of Lieutenant Gener- 
al Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., then Chief of Staff at 
Headquarters Marine Corps, as the new Comman- 
dant, the furor soon blew over. 

In more germane matters relating to the war, the 
differing personalities and styles of Generals West- 
moreland and Cushman impacted upon the 
MACV-III MAF command relations. A large bulky 
man, the bespectacled Cushman offered a sharp con- 
trast to the rigid military bearing of Westmoreland, 
who appeared to be "standing at attention while on 
the tennis court. ""' The MACV commander insisted 
on detailed plans of operations with no loose ends. 
On the other hand. General Cushman maintained an 
informal staff structure, confiding in few persons and 
relying largely on his chief of staff. Brigadier Gener- 
al Earl E. Anderson. Although concerned about the 
enemy buildup in the north, reinforcing Khe Sanh in 
December with another battalion, Cushman was 



A PUZZLING WAR 



15 




Abel Colk-tnon Photo 



LtGen Victor H. Krulak, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Pacific, left, visits with Gen Leonard E 
Chapman, Commandant of the Marine Corps, in the Commandant's office in Washington, D.C., in May 
1968. LtGen Krulak had a strong influence in the development of Marine pacification concepts and had 
been a leading candidate, together with Gen Chapman arid LtGen Lewis W Walt, for the Commandancy. 



confident that he had the situation under control. 
General Westmoreland, however, worried about 
what he perceived as the Marine command's "lack of 
foUowup in supervision," its employment of heli- 
copters, and its generalship. By January 1968, the 
MACV commander seriously considered making a 
change in the command relations in the north. ''2* 

An Ambivalent Outlook 

Despite the signs of an enemy buildup and con- 
cerns about the Marine command, General West- 
moreland just earlier had voiced his optimism about 
the course of the war. Called back to Washington in 
mid-November 1967, ostensibly for consultation. 



* General Anderson mentioned that since his arrival in December 
1967, he "participated in every conference or meeting held by General 
Cushman during my tenure in Da Nang. Our relationship could not 
have been closer . . . ." Anderson allowed that on the III MAF staff there 
were some weak links in that "General Cushman was one prone to 
accept the personnel sent to him by higher headquarters without com- 
plaining, so consequently certain senior staff members had to fill this 
void." Gen Eatl E. Anderson, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 18Dec94 
(Vietnam Comment File). Another III MAF staff officer described Gen- 
eral Cushman as a "perceptive gentleman [who] was content to soldier 
without comment as long as Westy [Westmoreland] didn't try to 
maneuver subordinate units in ICTZ (as he did in other Corps areas) and 
left Marine air under Marine control." LtCol John F. J. Kelly, Comments 
on draft chapter, dtd 13Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



but more to shore up public support for the admin- 
istration's Vietnam policy, he assured his audiences 
that the end was in view and that the "ranks of the 
Vietcong are thinning steadily."''"^ Reflecting this 
same optimism in his directives, Westmoreland 
advised his subordinate commanders that the situa- 
tion was "conducive to initiating an all-out offensive 
on all fronts: political, military, economic, and psy- 
chological."'" 

In drawing up plans for 1968 operations, the 
MACV staff accentuated this emphasis on the 
offensive. The 1968 Combined Plan with the Viet- 
namese continued to assign to the U.S. units the 
primary mission of destroying the NVA and VC 
main forces. American planners called for a three- 
pronged campaign: large-unit operations to keep 
the enemy off balance, destruction of the enemy 
base areas, and expanded "territorial security." Gen- 
eral Westmoreland and his staff expected to launch 
"multi-brigade offensives" against enemy strong- 
holds "not previously invaded." American contin- 
gency planning included possible operations in 
such enemy sanctuaries as Cambodia, Laos, and 
even an amphibious operation north of the DemiH- 
tarized Zone."" 

Notwithstanding the flurr)- of contingency plan- 
ning. General Westmoreland realized that administra- 



16 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



tion policy would confine his operations within the 
borders of South Vietnam. His Northeast Monsoon 
Campaign Plan for the period October 1967-March 
1968 centered around the 1st Cavalry Division. He 
wanted to use the division as a "theater exploitation 
force" in areas where the weather favored helicopter- 
borne tactics. His original concept delineated a tour- 
phased campaign. The 1st Cavalry was to conduct the 
first three phases in III Corps and then, as the weather 
improved, move north to I Corps. The objective in I 
Corps was the enemy's Do Xa base in western Quang 
Ngai and Quang Tin Provinces and the suspected 
headquarters of Milita)y Region V. This fourth phase 
was given the code name "York."^^ 

By the end of the year, with one eye on the grow- 
ing enemy strength in the north, the MACV staff 
modified the York plans. York, itself, was to be a four- 
phased operation. As part of a larger task force, the 1st 
Cavaln,- Division was to penetrate the western Do Xa 
in York I. Completing that phase of the operation, the 
division was then to be inserted into the A Shau Val- 
ley in western Thua Thien Province and the site of a 
former U.S. Special Forces Camp overrun by the NVA 
in the spring of 1966. Following York II, the 1st Cav- 
alr)s in Phase III, was to conduct operations further 
north in western Quang Tri Province and sweep to the 
Laotian border. In the fourth phase, the Army division 
would return to the Do Xa. Ill MAF was to be respon- 
sible for the planning of York II and III and General 
Murray, the III MAF deputy commander, was to com- 
mand the A Shau Valley operation. General West- 
moreland later wrote that the purpose of the York 
campaign was to set the "stage for the invasion of Laos 
that I hoped a new administration in Washington 
would approve. "<5" 

While planning for offensive actions in 1968, III 
MAF and IVIACV had to counter the enemy threat in 
the northern border regions. As early as October, Gen- 
eral Westmoreland reinforced the Marines with a 
brigade from the 1st Cavalry in the Que Son sector 
south of Da Nang which permitted General Cushman 
to move one regiment, the 1st Marines, from the Da 
Nang area to Quang Tri Province. The arrival of the 
Army's 11th Infantry Brigade in December allowed a 
fiirther realignment of III MAF units. General Cush- 
man began to implement this repositioning of forces in 
Operation Checkers which called for the deployment of 
the entire 3d Marine Division to either the DMZ front 
or Khe Sanh. The 1st Marine Division was to shift 
what was in essence a two-regiment task force under 
the assistant division commander to Phu Bai in Thua 



Thien Province and cover the western approaches to 
Hue City.68 

By the end of 1967, Operation Checkers was in full 
swing. The Americal Division began to take over from 
the Korean Brigade the TAOR (tactical area of opera- 
tional responsibility) south of Chu Lai. In turn, the first 
Korean battalions moved to the Hoi An sector south of 
Da Nang, relieving units of the 5th Marines. On 20 
December, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines deployed 
north of the strategic Hai Van Pass to the Phu Loc area 
of Thua Thien Province. All plans were complete. The 
1st Marine Division was to activate Task Force X-Ray 
in early January and the remainder of the 5 th Marines 
was to go to Phu Bai. At that time, the 3d Marine 
Division was then to transfer its command post (CP) 
from Phu Bai to Dong Ha in the eastern DMZ. Later 
in the month, the 1st Marines at Quang Tri was to 
return to its parent division by taking over from the 
4th Marines the CoBi/Than Tan Sector at Camp Evans 
in Thua Thien Province. The 4th Marines would then 
rejoin the 3d Division along the DMZ. Thus as 1968 
approached. III MAF was in a state of flux as units 
began to displace.''^ 

The signs of progress in I Corps were mixed. 
Action had flared up in early December throughout 
the Corps area. On the 5th, the enemy overran a dis- 
trict headquarters in Quang Ngai Province. Along the 
DMZ, the North Vietnamese launched a series of 
company-strength attacks on Marine positions in the 
northeast sector above the Cua Viet River. The 1st 
Marine Division at Da Nang in its southern TAOR 
engaged strong enemy forces while the Americal Divi- 
sion units and the attached brigade from the 1st Cav- 
alry Division encountered resistance from the 2d NVA 
Division in the important Que Son Valley along the 
border of Quang Tin and Quang Nam Provinces. By 
the end of the month, the NVA and VC took a more 
defensive stance toward the American units and 
turned on the ARVN and local forces in hit-and-run 
actions. Although sustaining heavy casualties in these 
attacks, the enemy "was successful in penetrating and 
damaging several positions. "'" 

Despite the heavy fighting in December, various 
indicators pointed to some success in the village war in 
I Corps. After a dropoff in pacification measurements 
during the first half of 1967, there was a marked 
increase in the figures for the rest of the year In 
December, approximately 75 percent of the village 
chiefs were living in their home villages as opposed to 
50 percent in January 1967. Other categories — the 
conducting of village censuses, establishment of 



A PUZZLING WAR 



17 



defense plans, and functioning of local governments — 
showed similar, if less dramatic, improvement. 
According to Marine Corps criteria, 55 percent of the 
population in I Corps in December lived in secure 
areas, ranging from a high of 80 percent in the Phu Bai 
sectors to a low of 34 percent at Due Pho. The Marines 
credited several factors for this upsurge, not the least of 
which was the insertion of Army units in southern I 
Corps to take up the slack left by the departure ot the 
Marines for the northern battle sector. Yet III MAF 
believed that its innovative pacification techniques 
accounted for much of the progress.'' 

With the coming of the Christmas and New Year 
season, the war continued on its ambivalent course. The 
holiday truce periods symbolized the cross-currents of 
the conflict. Giving vague hints of peace, the Commu- 
nists agreed to a 24-hour truce over Christmas and a 
slightly longer, 36 hours, respite over the New Year's 
celebration. Taking advantage of the cease-fires and the 
halt in U.S. air operations, the North Vietnamese 
moved supplies to their forward units. Over Christmas, 
American air observers spotted some 600-800 vehicles 
and boats hauling and landing military provisions and 
equipment in southern North Vietnam. MACV report- 
ed 118 enemy violations — 40 of them major — over 
Christmas, and 170 — 63 major — during the New 
Year's truce period. The New Year's violations resulted 
in 29 allied soldiers dead and 128 wounded, with two 
South Vietnamese troops listed as missing in action. In 
turn, the allies killed 117 of the enemy. The American 
command called both standdowns a "hoax" and recom- 
mended that any cease-fire for the Vietnamese Tet or 
lunar new year be as short as possible.'-* 

U.S. leaders worried over the Communist intentions 
for the new year. In a departure Irom the optimistic 
public rhetoric of his administration about the war, 
President Johnson privately warned the Australian 
Cabinet in late December of "dark days ahead."''' Much 
evidence indicated that the enemy was on the move. 
American intelligence reported two North Vietnamese 
divisions near Khe Sanh and a third along the eastern 



DMZ. Further south, prisoner interrogations revealed 
the possible presence of a new enemy regiment in Thua 
Thien Province. American commanders believed Hue 
was a major enemy objective although the 1st ARVN 
Division could not "credit the enemy with 'the intent' 
nor the 'capability' to launch a division-size attack " 
against the city.'' At Da Nang, III MAF received infor- 
mation that the 2cl NVA Division was shifting its area 
ot operations to Quang Nam Province.'' Captured 
enemy documents spoke of major offensives through- 
out South Vietnam. One in particular observed "that 
the opportunity for a general offensive and general 
uprising is within reach . . . ," and directed the coordi- 
nation of military attacks "with the uprisings of the 
local population to take over towns and cities.""'' 

By January 1968, a sense of foreboding and uncer- 
tainty dominated much American thinking about the 
situation in Vietnam and the course of the war." 
According to all allied reports. Communist forces had 
taken horrendous casualties during the past few 
months, causing one senior U.S. Army general to won- 
der if the North Vietnamese military command was 
aware of these losses.'** Yet, all the signs pointed to a 
major enemy offensive in the very near future. 
Although captured enemy documents spoke of assaults 
on the cities and towns, General Westmoreland 
believed the enemy's more logical targets to be the 
DMZ and Khe Sanh, while staging diversionary' 
attacks elsewhere. He thought the Communist objec- 
tives to be the seizure of the two northern provinces of 
South Vietnam and to make Khe Sanh the American 
Dien Bien Phu.'y" 

While planning their own offensive moves, MACV 
and III MAF prepared for a NVA push in the north. 
General Cushman reinforced Khe Sanh and in Opera- 
tion Checkers began to deploy his forces toward the 
northern border. 



* Major Gary E. Todd, who served as an inrelligence officer on the 
3d Marine Division staff, commented that the "the last shot fired 
before the 'cease fire' took effect was like a starter's pisrol to the North 
Vietnamese, crouched down and tensed to explode into a sprint " to 
resupply their forces in the south. Todd Comments. 



**Army Lieutenant General Philip B. Davidson, the MACV intelli- 
gence officer, commented that General Westmoreland stated his expecta- 
tion of the coming enemy offensive "in broad terms as a result of series of 
war games conducted by and at MACV headquarters. It was considered as 
nothing more than a 'probable course of enemy action' . . . , " Davidson 
contends that the MACV commander was open "to consideration of other 
possible forms of the enemy offensive right up to the initiation of the Tet 
offensive," Davidson observed also that General Cushman "concurred" 
with the MACV expectations. LtGen Philip B. Davidson, Jr. (USA), Com- 
ments on draft chapter, dtd 250ct6S (Vietnam Comment File). 



CHAPTER 2 

The 3d Marine Division and the Barrier 

The 3d Marine Division in the DMZ — The Barrier 



The 3d Marine Division in the DMZ 

The war in the north was largely the responsi- 
bility of the 3d Marine Division. Since the summer 
of 1966, the division had parried several successive 
North Vietnamese Army thrusts in Quang Tri 
Province, both in the northeast and in the west near 
the Marine base at Khe Sanh. Commanding one of 
the largest divisions in Marine Corps history, Major 
General Rathvon McC. Tompkins had more than 
24,000 men under him organized into five infantry 
regiments, one artillery regiment, and supporting 
elements. U.S. Army artillery units and Navy logis- 
tic forces, including Seabees, supplemented the 
Marines. Two of the regiments of the 1st ARVN 
Division also reinforced the 3d Division. The divi- 
sion's forward command post was at Dong Ha some 
eight miles below the Demilitarized Zone. 
Although one regiment, the 4th Marines, remained 
in Thua Thien protecting the western approaches 
to Hue, the bulk oi the 3d Division was in Quang 
Tri Province, mainly facing north, to counter the 
expected enemy onslaught. 

Quang Tn Province contains some 1,800 square 
miles, extending about 45 miles north and south and 
40 miles east and west. Its rugged interior rises to 
the west with jungled canopied peaks reaching 
heights of 1,700 meters near the Laotian border. 
Eastern Quang Tri is characterized by a narrow 
coastal plain and a piedmont sector of rolling hills. 
In the north, the Ben Hai River marked the bound- 
ary with North Vietnam. The six-mile-wide Demil- 
itarized Zone followed the trace of the river for 30 
miles inland and then went in a straight line to the 
Laotian border. Despite some relaxation of the U.S. 
rules of engagement in the DMZ south of the Ben 
Hai, both the Demilitarized Zone and Laos offered a 
sanctuary for the North Vietnamese Army to mass its 
forces and position its artillery. 

These terrain and political considerations largely 
determined the enemy's avenues of approach and 
the 3d Marine Division dispositions in the DMZ 
sector. The North Vietnamese made their base areas 



in the Demilitarized Zone and Laos and tried to 
infiltrate their forces into the river valleys and 
coastal plain to cut the allied lines of communica- 
tions. Route 1, the main north and south highway, 
connected the Marine bases of Dong Ha and Quang 
Tri in the north to Phu Bai and Da Nang further 
south. The Cua Viet River provided the division its 
chief logistic artery, running from the Cua Viet 
Facility at its mouth to Dong Ha. Little more than 
a mountain path in its western reaches. Route 9 
linked Dong Ha with Khe Sanh. Since August 
1967, however the North Vietnamese had success- 
fully severed Route 9 west of the Marine outpost at 
Ca Lu, isolating the Marines at Khe Sanh and per- 
mitting resupply only by air. 

East of Khe Sanh, the 3d Division was strung out 
in a series of outposts and bases that allowed protec- 
tion for Route 9, the important Cam Lo River Valley 
which extended to Dong Ha, and the coastal plain. 
The most significant of these were: Ca Lu, 10 miles 
east of Khe Sanli; the Rockpile, a sheer 700-foot out- 
cropping, eight miles further north; followed by 
Camp Carroll, 10 miles to the east; and then the her- 
alded "Leatherneck Square," the quadrilateral outlined 
by Cam Lo, Con Thien, Gio Linh, and Dong Ha. 

For purposes of delineation and control, the divi- 
sion divided this extensive area into a series of regi- 
mental and battalion operational areas with designat- 
ed code names. For example, the 1st Amphibian 
Tractor Battalion in Operation Napoleon was respon- 
sible for keeping open the Cua Viet waterway. Further 
north, the 9th Marines, in Operation Kentucky, 
manned the defenses in the Leatherneck Square sec- 
tor. In Operation Lancaster, the 3d Marines screened 
the area from Cam Lo to Ca Lu. Scotland was the code 
name for the 26th Marines operations at Khe Sanh. 
To the south, the 1st Marines in Operation Osceola 
guarded the approaches to the provincial capital and 
the secondary Marine base near Quang Tri City. The 
1st ARVN Division was responsible for the sector 
east of Route 1 and south of Dong Ha. With its com- 
mand post at Dong Ha, the 12th Marines, the 
artillerv regiment, supported all of these operations 



18 



THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



19 



from firing positions at Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, Gio 
Linh, Khe Sanh, and Quang Tri.* 

By the end of 1967, the DMZ front symbolized the 
frustrations of the American war in Vietnam. The 
bloody battle for the outlying hills surrounding Khe 
Sanh in April and later the struggle for Con Thien 
highlighted the fighting for the year. As casualty fig- 
ures mounted on both sides senior commanders voiced 
their concern. At the height of the fierce contest for 
Con Thien, General Krulak observed that in Septem- 
ber the Marines had suffered 956 casualties and for the 
year nearly 5,000 dead and wounded in the DMZ 
alone. Both General Krulak and Admiral Sharp con- 
cluded that such a rate could not be sustained and that 
"the operational benefits now being achieved in the 
area ... are not consistent with the losses incurred."' 

As early as July, General Krulak had warned 
about the disadvantages of waging the war in the 
DMZ sector. He told American commanders that 
they must face "the brutal facts" that the Marines 
were "under the enemy's guns." Krulak believed the 
enemy's purpose was: 

... to get us as near to his weapons and to his forces as 
possible, drench us with high angle fire weapons, 
engage us in close and violent combat, accept willingly 
a substantial loss of lite for the opportunity to kill a less- 
er number of our men, and to withdraw into his North 
Vietnam sanctuary to refurbish. - 

In a message on 23 September, General Krulak 
outlined to General Cushman the limited options on 
the northern front available to the Marine command. 
Ill MAF could withdraw its forces to defensive posi- 
tions further south, out of the range of the North Viet- 
namese artillery north of the Ben Hai. Krulak reject- 
ed this move, although tactically sound, as carrying 
"too large a price." The enemy could claim a propa- 
ganda victory, and moreover it meant abandoning the 
barrier and strongpoint obstacle system. He noted 
"whatever criticism may have been directed at the 
concept before, it is now an official U.S./GVN 
endeavor, and to back away from it now could not con- 
ceivably be identified with progress in the war." 
Another alternative was to invade North Vietnam, 
which also was not feasible, because of logistic and 
political ramifications. Krulak believed the only 



* Lieutenant General Louis Metzger noted that the operational 
names had little significance for the Marines who were there: "It was 
all one big battle. For most of us, one so-called operation looked just 
like another." LtGen Louis Metzger, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 
170ct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Metzger Comments. 



remaining viable choices were the reinforcement of 
the 3d Division in Quang Tri and the intensification 
of American air and artillery bombardment of the 
enemy in and immediately north of the DMZ.^ 

General Krulak's message more or less reflected the 
thinking of both General Westmoreland at MACV 
and General Cushman at III MAF of the situation in 
the north. None of the American commanders serious- 
ly considered the abandonment of the U.S. positions 
north of Dong Ha or Route 9. General Westmoreland 
established a small group in his headquarters to exam- 
ine the possibility of an amphibious landing in con- 
junction with an overland sally through the DMZ into 
North Vietnam. These deliberations, however, went no 
flirther than the planning stage.-" Thus, left: with rather 
a Hobson's choice, Westmoreland and Cushman elect- 
ed their only remaining courses of action. General 
Westmoreland in early October reinforced III MAF 
with a brigade from the 1st Cavalry Division, which 
permitted General Cushman to redeploy the 1st 
Marines from Da Nang to Quang Tri City. At the same 
time. III MAF received the bulk of available B-52 
strikes and naval gunfire support. By 12 October, Gen- 
eral Westmoreland reported to Admiral Sharp that 
"our successful application of firepower through B-52 
strikes, tactical air, and extensive artillery fires has 
caused the enemy to suffer heavy casualties which cou- 
pled with increasing flood conditions to his rear ren- 
ders his massed posture in the vicinity of Con Thien no 
longer tenable. "' 

Although the action in the DMZ sector abated 
somewhat during October and November, the situa- 
tion was again tense by the end of the year. Just before 
Thanksgiving 1967, General Krulak alerted General 
Cushman that the enemy was once more moving men 
and material into the Demilitarized Zone, improving 
his artillery, and "preparing the battlefield. "^ At 
MACV Headquarters, General Westmoreland 
expressed his concern in early December about the 
enemy buildup. He disagreed with President Thieu's 
assessment that the North Vietnamese were creating "a 
diversionary effort" in the DMZ to mask their real 
objective, the Central Highlands. Westmoreland 
believed that the next enemy move would be in the 
northern two provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien 
Provinces." On 16 December, he once more directed 
that I Corps for the next 30 days receive priority of the 
B— 52 Arclight strikes. At the same time, he ordered 
the immediate preparation of contingency plans to 
reinforce III MAF with Army troops and the develop- 
ment of logistic facilities to accommodate those forces.-"* 



20 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



At III AIAF Headquarters, General Cushman also 
made his adjustments to reinforce the northern battle- 
field. In late December, he implemented Operation 
Checkers which would eventually result in the 1st 
Marine Division taking over responsibility for all 
operations in Thua Thien Province so that General 
Tompkins 3d Division could concentrate its full 
resources in the DMZ and Khe Sanh sector By Janu- 
ar\^ 1968, elements of the 1st Division's 5th Marines 
had deployed into the former 3d Division TAOR 
south of Phu Bai. Both divisions had established 
timetables for the phased placement of their regi- 
ments and battalions into new operating areas. In sort 
of hop, skip, and jump movements, hence the name 
Checkers, the units were to displace one another. For 
example, the 4th Marines was to assume control of 
Operation Lancaster in the central DMZ from the 3d 
Marines. In turn, the 3d Marines was to go to Quang 
Tri and relieve the 1st Marines. The 1st Marines then 
was to replace the 4th Marines at Camp Evans in Thua 
Thien Province and return to the operational control 
of the 1st Division. Both the 9th Marines and the 1st 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion would continue with 
their respective operations, Kentucky and Napoleon. 
The 2d ARVN Regiment would stay tied in with the 
9th Marines on the right and take over more of the 
strongpoints of the barrier system. On 15 January, 
General Tompkins planned to transfer his command 
post from Phu Bai to Dong Ha.'' 

General Tompkins was relatively new to the Viet- 
nam War. He assumed command of the 3d Division 
in November after the unexpected death of his pre- 
decessor. Major General Bruno A. Hochmuth, in a 
helicopter crash. Holder of the Navy Cross, Silver 
Star, and Bronze Star, General Tompkins was a vet- 
eran of the island campaigns of Guadalcanal, 
Tarawa, and Saipan in World War II. He had the 5th 
Marines in Korea after the signing of the armistice 
and oversaw the implementation of its terms in his 
sector. During the Dominican crisis of April— May 
1965, he commanded the Marine forces ashore. 
While Commanding General, Marine Corps 
Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, he 
received his orders to Vietnam.'" 

Regarded in Marine Corps circles as one of its best 
tacticians. General Tompkins was thought the ideal 
candidate to take charge of the DMZ Wan Vietnam 
was to be a unique experience for him. Colonel James 
R. Stockman, his operations officer who had served 
with him on Saipan, recalled that when General Tomp- 
kins arrived he asked one question: "Tell me about the 



operational folklore in the division's area of operations." 
According to Stockman, he told the general that from 
his point of view it "was a bad war, highly inhibited by 
MACV restrictions . . . {and} political considerations 
emanating from Washington."" 

General Tompkins soon became well acquainted 
with the "operational folklore" of the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion. He learned quickly that a regiment may have 
responsibility for a sector but have none of its battal- 
ions under its command. For example, the 9th Marines 
in the five-battalion Operation Kentucky only had one 
of its original battalions, the 2d Battalion with only 
two of four companies, participating in the operation. 
The other four battalions came from the 1st Marines, 
3d Marines, and 4th Marines. According to Colonel 
Stockman, General Tompkins "caught on fast to the 
term 'opcon' [operational control}" which permitted 
the interchange of battalions from regiment to regi- 
ment without the relinquishment of administrative 
responsibility.'-*^^ 

This tasking of units, as one Marine historical 
analyst. Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons, 
observed, "demonstrated the interchangeable nature 
of Marine battalions and gave the division comman- 
der great flexibility."'' Yet this flexibility had a 
price. Command lines were somewhat blurred and 
tactical integrity was more difficult to maintain. 
Simmons noted "One regimental commander esti- 
mated that it took about two weeks of working with 
a new battalion to iron out problems of procedures 
and communications."'-'" 

Two other aspects of the "operational folklore" of the 
3d Marine Division impinged upon General Tompkins 
as 1967 drew to a close. One was Khe Sanh and the 
other was the strongpoint system or barrier Although 
ordered to reinforce Klie Sanh with a battalion in 
December bv both Generals Westmoreland and Cush- 



* Colonel Vaughn R. Scuart, who sen'ed both as executive officer 
and later commander of the 3d Marines, commented that General 
Hochmuth believed that regiments were "capable of controlling any 
number of battalions." The regimental headquarters would be located 
"in the important areas . . . and the principal tactic was in the shifting 
of the maneuver battalions to various regiments as the situation dic- 
tated." Col Vaughn R. Stuart, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 
20Decl994 (Vietnam Comment File). 

** Lieutenant General Metzger, the 3d Marine Division assistant 
division commander in January 1968, remarked that General Tomp- 
kins wanted to bring "rhe tangle of battalions and regiments into some 
sort of order; to the extent possible, aligning the battalions with their 
parent regiments." Metzger believed that Tompkins "was faced with 
nearly an impossible situation, fighting the battle with an inadequate 
force for the assigned missions." Metzger Comments. 



THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



21 




Abel Collection Photo 
LtGen Robert E. Ciishman, left, CG 111 MAP, pins the 
Distinguished Service Medal on MajGen Rathvon McC. 
Tompkins at an award ceremony at Da Nang. Gen Tomp- 
kins, who served as CG 5d MarDiv, and later as Gen 
Cushmans deputy, was very much involved in the building 
of the barrier and its problems. 

man, General Tompkins was more concerned about the 
situation he confronted in the DMZ sector.* In 1976, 
he wrote that he still did not understand why the 
North Vietnamese "did not contain" the base at Khe 
Sanh "and sideslip the rest of their formations" towards 
the coast and more lucrative targets." 

The barrier or "McNamara Wall" was the other 
feature of the war in the north that overrode most 
other considerations confronting the 3d Marine 
Division. It determined both the disposition and the 
tactics of the division along the DMZ. According to 
Colonel Stockman, both Khe Sanh and the barrier 
had become "sacrosanct" by the end of the year and 
that the latter "could not even be discussed, much 
less argued, when I was G— 3 . . . ." Stockman 
claimed that the barrier "became an objective in 
itself, causing field commanders to be committed to 
an unattainable act of juggling real tactical consider- 
ations and {barrier} requirements."'" 



* General Metzger observed that General Westmoreland did not 
give a direct order to General Tompkins to reinforce Khe Sanh. 
Although the MACV commander "became perilously close" to violat- 
ing the chain of command "on his many visits with comments and 
suggestions ....," he never "bypassed 111 MAF." Metzger Comments. 



The Barrier 

Although credited to Secretary of Defense Robert 
S. McNamara, the concept of a defensive "barrier" 
between the two Vietnams had many authors. As early 
as the late 1950s, President Diem asked his senior 
U.S. Army military advisor. Lieutenant General 
Samuel T. Williams, to assist in building "a series of 
strongpoints (concrete) each to hold an infantry squad, 
across from the sea to Laos just below the DMZ."'" A 
few years later, in the fall of 1961, General Maxwell 
Taylor, President Kennedy's Special Military Repre- 
sentative, on a visit to South Vietnam, directed 
Brigadier General Edward E Lansdale, the Air Eorce 
counterinsurgency expert who accompanied him on 
the trip, "to do a study of fortifying the DMZ."'^ In 
early 1965, before the commitment of major U.S. 
units to the Vietnam War, Army Chief of Staff Gener- 
al Harold K. Johnson, proposed sending a "multina- 
tional four-division force ... to man defensive posi- 
tions south of the DMZ and to overwatch the Laotian 
border area to the west, thereby impeding the move- 
ment of enemy forces from the north. "'9 

The Defense Department, however, only began to 
give serious consideration to a DMZ barrier in the 
spring of 1966 when Secretary of Defense McNama- 
ra raised the question with the Joint Chiefs. He then 
directed the establishment of a special study group to 
examine the technical feasibility of such a plan. Spon- 
sored by the Institute of Defense Analysis, 67 scien- 
tists participated in the study and released their find- 
ings, known as the Jason Report, on 30 August 1966. 
The report concluded that a unmanned air-supported 
barrier could be established in a year's time. This bar- 
rier was to consist of two parts — one aimed at indi- 
viduals on foot and the other against vehicles. The 
former was to be along the southern edge of the DMZ 
while the latter was to extend into Laos. Both parts 
were to contain gravel mines (small mines with the 
purpose of crippling legs and feet on detonation), 
button bomblets (mines designed only to make a 
loud noise which could be picked up by an acoustic 
sensor) and both acoustic and seismic detectors (sen- 
sitive to sound and ground vibrations). Patrol and 
strike aircraft were to monitor and support the 
ground barrier. 

Although many of the militar\' had serious resena- 
tions, especially CinCPac, Admiral Sharp, Secretary 
McNamara believed the proposal had merit. He 
appointed Army Lieutenant General Alfred Starbird to 
head a joint tiisk force within tlie Defense Department 



22 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



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3D MARINE DIVISION 

AREAS OF OPERATION AND THE 

STRONG POINT OBSTACLE SYSTEM 

JANUARY 1968 




Kilometers i_ 



10 

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to study the possibilities of implementing the Jason 
Report recommendations. The Starbird task force was 
to devise an anti-infiltration system based on air- 
dropped munitions and electronic sensors that would 
slow, if not stop, the flow of men and material from the 
north into the south. This entire planning effort was to 
have the code name "Practice Nine." 

General Westmoreland had mixed feelings about 
the barrier proposal. He was well aware of the disad- 
vantages of any barrier. In a message to General Star- 
bird, he observed that the North Vietnamese, "will be 
able to harass a fixed barrier at selected times and places 
both during and after the construction phase . . . The 
enemy will make full use of the 'bait and trap' tech- 
nique in attempts to lure friendly elements into pre- 
pared ambushes." Westmoreland concluded with an 
analysis of the North "Vietnamese: "Our enemy is self- 
confident, determined, ingenious and uses terrain and 
weather to his advantage. His solutions to problems are 
usually elemental, simple and practical from his view 
point." Despite these doubts about a barrier, he him- 
self, was thinking of building a "strongpoint obstacle 
system" that would "channel the enemy into well- 
defined corridors where we might bring air and 
artiUery to bear and then hit him with mobile ground 



reserves." He saw the Starbird project as an opportuni- 
ty to institute his own concept.-" 

On 3 October 1966, the MACV commander 
ordered his own staff to come up with a study of the var- 
ious defensive options in the DMZ sector and report 
back to him in six days. In its preliminary findings, the 
MACV planning group recommended a mobile defense 
behind a barrier system. The MACV planners suggest- 
ed a linear barrier extending from Dong Ha Mountain 
to the sea. This linear barrier would consist of a 1,000- 
meter wide "trace" with barbed wire, minefields, 
remote sensor devices, bunkers, watch towers at period- 
ic intervals, all tied together with an extensive commu- 
nications network. The original scheme called for an 
ARVN armored cavalry regiment to man, screen, and 
provide depth to the defense. Ill MAT would be pre- 
pared to provide reinforcements or blocking forces as 
the situation might demand. West of the trace, the plan 
would have a strongpoint defense centered around 
strategic defiles in the mountainous terrain. The west- 
ern strongpoint system would consist of 20 outposts 
manned by a Republic of Korea division and reinforced 
by artillery and air. This preliminary plan would go 
through several transitions, but would be the basis of all 
subsequent discussion and planning efforts. 



THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



23 



The day after receiving his briefing, 1 1 October 
1966, General Westmoreland met with Secretary 
McNamara in Vietnam. He recommended his alterna- 
tive to the Washington plan. The Secretary, after flying 
over the DMZ, was receptive to the Westmoreland 
proposal. He directed that MACV should continue 
with its planning effort and at the same time charged 
General Starbird's Washington group with the pro- 
duction and delivery of the munitions and sensors to 
support these measures. Planning would also continue 
on the development of air-delivered munitions and 
sensors in Laos to augment the anti-infiltration system 
to be constructed in South Vietnam. The Seventh Air 
Force would be responsible for the aviation aspects 
while III MAF together with the MACV Combat 
Operations Center were to draw up the designs for the 
barrier and strongpoints within South Vietnam. 

Despite their wishes, the Marine command would 
be at the center of the barrier developments. Very early, 
Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt, then III MAF com- 
mander, made known his unhappiness with the barrier 
concept. It was his belief and that of his commanders 
that if he had the additional forces projected by the bar- 
rier planners, "a far better job of sealing the DMZ could 
be accomplished without the barrier itself" It was the 
Marine position that a barrier defense "should free 
Marine forces for operations elsewhere not freeze such 
forces in a barrier watching defensive role." With their 
objections overruled, the Marine commanders had no 
choice but to comply with their directives.-' 

Ill MAF submitted its formal operational plan for 
the barrier at the end of December 1 966 and MACV 
incorporated the Marine concepts, with some modifi- 
cations, in its Practice 9 Requirements Plan of 26 Jan- 
uary 1967. The Marine plan had established a deadline 
of 1 August 1967 for the construction and manning by 
an ARVN regiment of the eastern portion of the barri- 



er. Ill MAF would have started work on a road network 
and the dredging of the Cua Viet to support the pro- 
ject. A Korean division was to assume responsibility for 
the area west of Dong Ha Mountain on 1 August 1967 
as well, and the 3d Marine Division would then be free 
of the barrier defense. MACV, in its changes, pushed 
back the final completion date of the eastern section to 
1 November and postponed the entry of additional 
forces into the western defile area until November. The 
original plan had called for a deadline of 1 November 
for the building of the western strongpoints, which 
MACV changed to read, "the remainder of the system 
in this area will be completed subsequent to 1 Novem- 
ber 1967." Marines, however, were to construct a 
strongpoint at their Klie Sanh base. MACV did make 
some cosmetic revisions in wording: anti-infiltration 
system was substituted for barrier, since the latter had 
the connotation of an impregnable defense. More 
importantly, MACV requested an additional division 
and regiment specifically earmarked for the strong- 
point system in the Demilitarized Zone, to supple- 
ment its forces already in Vietnam. -- 

Despite not acting upon Westmoreland's request for 
additional units for the barrier, which became caught 
up in the Washington review of overall MACV man- 
power needs during the spring of 1967, Secretary 
McNamara approved in early March the basic MACV 
strongpoint proposal. He authorized General Starbird 
to procure the necessary material to build and equip 
the strongpoints and base camps for a 10-kilometer 
"trace" in the eastern DMZ. The Secretary also ordered 
work to begin on the improvements of Route 1 and the 
ports near Hue and on the Cua Viet. At the same time, 
the State Department arranged with the South Viet- 
namese Government to discuss the necessary land pur- 
chases and the resettlement of the civilian population 
in the area of the trace. 



In aerial photograph, Strongpoint A-4 at Con Thien is marked by the cross hairs. Less than 160 meters 
high and located two miles south of the DMZ, Con Thien still dominated the surrounding flat teirain. 

Photo from 12 th Mar ComdC,Jan69 




24 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



General Westmoreland soon passed his directives on 
to III MAE He ordered General Walt to prepare a plan 
in coordination with the South Vietnamese I Corps 
commander, General Lam, for the Strongpoint Obsta- 
cle System. The Marine command was to confine its 
discussions with the South Vietnamese only to the east- 
ern sector. No mention was to be made of the western 
strongpoint defile or of the air-supported system in 
Laos. Even with the lack of a formal plan, Marine engi- 
neers in early April began clearing the terrain between 
Gio Linh and Con Thien under the guise of clearing 
fields of fire and building modest field fortifications. 

By mid-April, the barrier for III MAE had become 
a reality, and not to the liking of senior Marine com- 
manders. On 19 April, General Westmoreland told 
General Walt that "the mission of establishing a 
strongpoint/obstacle system south of the DMZ initial- 
ly will be given to the U.S. Marines."-^ In his reply. 
General Walt protested that this order assigned his 
entire 3d Marine Division to the barrier. In effect, the 
division would be confined to fixed positions and to 
the construction and the manning of the strongpoint 
system. The III MAE commander argued that unless 
he received reinforcements in the north he would not 
be able to conduct offensive operations there. General 
Westmoreland had no additional forces to give him, 
but indicated that he would reinforce the Marines as 
troops and units became available. General Krulak, the 
EMEPac commander, was quick to point out to the 
Commandant, General Greene, "that we are already 
embarked on a form of Practice Nine." He observed 
that the reinforcement of Army troops in Task Eorce 
Oregon at Chu Lai had "been counterbalanced by 
MACV assigning III MAF the barrier mission." Kru- 
lak asked General Greene "to demonstrate at the Joint 
Chiefs and the Department of Defense levels" that 
Marine resources were going into the strongpoint sys- 
tem "with only a presumptive basis for assuming we 
will be compensated."--' 

Notwithstanding this unified front on the part of 
the Marine Corps, III MAE, again, had little alternative 
but to continue with its planning and building of the 
strongpoint system. In May, during Operation Hicko- 
ry, the 3d Division moved some II, 000 civilians from 
the construction sites to a resettlement village at Cam 
Lo. The 11th Engineer Battalion cleared the terrain 
while one or two infantry battalions provided the secu- 
rity. On 18 June, III MAF finally published its opera- 
tion plan which outlined the eastern strongpoint obsta- 
cle system. According to the plan, a cleared trace 
would extend from a strongpoint (A— 5), some six kilo- 



meters west of Con Thien, for over 25 kilometers to its 
eastern terminus at another strongpoint (A— 1),* some 
six kilometers east of Gio Linh. The "trace" would be 
supported by six company strongpoints, labeled A— 1 
through A— 6. Gio Linh was Strongpoint A-2 and Con 
Thien was Strongpoint A-4. Behind the strongpoints 
were to be three battalion base areas, designated C— I 
through C-3. An ARVN regiment was to man Strong- 
points A— 1 and A— 2 and Base Area C-3. A Marine 
regiment was to be responsible tor the strongpoints 
and base areas west of Route 1 . 

The plan called for the work to be completed in two 
phases. In Phase 1, a 600 meter-wide trace was to be 
built from Con Thien to Strongpoint A— 1. Four of the 
strongpoints. A— 1 through A-4, as well as all of the 
base areas were to be finished by 1 November 1967, 
the deadline for Phase 1. Ill MAF, at the same time, 
would improve the road network to include Routes 9, 
1, and 561. The latter road was to connect Con Thien 
to its combat support bases and Route 9. The 3d 
Marine Division base at Dong Ha was to be the logis- 
tics center of the entire effort. It was hoped that by the 
onset of the monsoon season that the barrier obstacle 
system of mines, radars, towers, barbed wire, and sen- 
sors, would be in place along that part of the trace from 
Con Thien to Gio Linh. In the second phase, at the end 
of the monsoon season. III MAE would finish the con- 
struction of the two strongpoints west of Con Thien 
and complete the extension of the trace and its obsta- 
cle system from Strongpoint A— I to A-5. The entire 
project would be over by July 1968.-'' 

The III MAE barrier plan proved to be overly opti- 
mistic. By the end of July 1967, Marine engineer and 
construction units had accumulated an impressive set 
of statistics pertaining to the number of man and 
equipment hours devoted to the project, yet progress 
was relatively slow. The 11th Engineer Battalion com- 
mitted nearly 50 percent of its total resources to the 
construction of the trace at a loss of 15 tractors and two 
dump trucks. As Marine units extended their efforts, 
North Vietnamese resistance increased. The same 
infantry battalions that were assigned to construction 
projects also had security missions. More than one bat- 



* General Metzger wrote that the original Dyemarker plan did not 
contain the A-1 strongpoint: "It was only after the 3d Marine Division 
emphatically pointed out the area in which A-1 was finally located was 
the 'rocket belt' from which the enemy, after crossing the Ben Hai 
River, set up rockets and fired them into the Dong Ha Base. It was 
essential that this terrain be denied the enemy, thus A-1." Metzger 
emphasized the need for tactical plans to be developed by those who 
are closest to the situation. Metzger Comments. 



THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



25 



talion commander complained about the strain on his 
men to build the barrier at the same time they fought 
the war. Brigadier General Louis Metzger, the 3d 
Marine Division Assistant Division Commander 
(ADC), several years later wrote that the "Marines 
required to do the construction work were exhausted 
from protracted combat and the so-called security mis- 
sions were in fact heavy combat."^'' 

The Marine command began to view Dyemarker, 
the new codename for Practice Nine, as an albatross 
around its neck. Originally, although not happy with 
the barrier concept. General Krulak in June 1967 
thought that it might be feasible to extend the trace 
from the sea some 25 kilometers inland and deny the 
enemy "a direct north-south route into the populous 
areas. "27 General Cushman, who had assumed com- 
mand of III MAP in June, also thought that the com- 
pletion of the strongpoint obstacle system would free 
his forces along the DMZ for operations elsewhere.^s 
By the end of July, both men had second thoughts. In 
messages to the III MAP commander and to General 
Greene, the PMPPac commander voiced his concerns. 
Krulak radioed Cushman: "I am fearftil, that, unless we 
call a halt, that MACV is going to nibble us to death 
in the Dyemarker project." He stated that he under- 
stood Cushman's problems: "You must get as much of 
the job done as possible in advance of the monsoon and 
you need help to do it. "-9 In his message to General 
Greene, General Krulak remarked on the slow progress 
and the high costs of the barrier program. He remind- 
ed both men that the original barrier concept called for 
specific forces to take over the barrier, and he now 
feared that MACV was hedging on this support.^" 

These considerations started to come to a head in 
August. Ill MAP briefed General Greene on the Dye- 
marker situation during the Commandant's visit to 
Vietnam in the early part of the month. The III MAP 
briefers observed that the original MACV concept 
called for a minimum of 7,691 additional men includ- 
ing an infantry brigade, construction battalions, truck 
companies, and other support units to reinforce the 
Marines in Dyemarker. None of these units had yet 
been forthcoming. The III MAP staff ended its presen- 
tation with the observation that the "Pnemy activity in 
northern Quang Tri . . . greatly exceeded that assumed 
. . .," yet the Marines were under directives "to accom- 
plish the tasks within available force levels."^' 

On 16 August, General Cushman appealed directly 
to General Westmoreland. He made much the same 
argument that he had in the briefing for General 
Greene. The III MAP commander reiterated that he 



had not received any ol the additional forces supposed- 
ly specified for the Dyemarker project. He emphasized 
that the buildup of enemy forces in the DMZ made the 
original estimate of minimum forces for the barrier 
now hopelessly out of date. Cushman then explained 
that the seven battalions that he had up in the north 
"cannot accomplish that task up forward and at the 
same time construct, man, and operate and defend the 
Strongpoint/Obstacle System ... to their rear." He 
remarked that the only way "to get on with the job," 
was to shift an Army brigade from Chu Lai to Da 
Nang, and then move a Marine regiment from the Da 
Nang TAOR to the DMZ sector. General Cushman 
then asked General Westmoreland to consider this lat- 
ter alternative.?- Cushman received assurances that he 
could deploy his forces as he saw fit, and on 30 August 
directed his 1st Marine Division to prepare plans for 
the movement of two battalions north to the DMZ. He 
explained to the division commander, Major General 
Donn J. Robertson, "everyone has to strain during 
Dyemarker."" 

At this point, the North Vietnamese took matters 
into their own hands. In early September, they began 
an artillery bombardment of Marine positions along 
the strongpoint system and Marine rear areas from 
positions above the DMZ. On 3 September, more than 
40 rounds of mixed caliber shells staick the over- 
crowded Dong Ha base. An ammunition storage area 
and the bulk fiiel farm went up in flames. The Marine 
helicopter squadron at the Dong Ha Airfield sustained 
damage to 17 ol its aircraft, already in short supply. 
Prom as far away as 50 miles, Marine pilots aloft: could 
see billowing smoke rising over Dong Ha. Considering 
the extent of the explosions and fires, Marine casualties 
were relatively light — no one killed and 77 wounded, 
and only one man seriously. The impact upon Marine 
logistics in the north and upon the III MAP capability 
to continue the Dyemarker project was another matter. 
In a message to General Westmoreland, General Cush- 
man laid out the implications of the losses of material 
as a result of the attack on 3 September, and continu- 
ing with the barrier under the guns of the enemy. He 
observed that the destruction of the Dong Ha ammu- 
nition supply point "had a direct impact on my ability 
to proceed with Dyemarker." The III MAP comman- 
der then remarked that "We are rapidly approaching 
the time when a decision must be made as to . . . instal- 
lation of the Strongpoint Obstacle System." Cushman 
related again the effort that his forces had been making 
despite shortages in material for Dyemarker and w irh- 
out the promised troop reinforcements tor tlie protect. 



26 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Both the ports of Cua Viet and Dong Ha as well as the 
troops working on Dyemarker were under the "same 
fan of guns" that had blown up the ammunition dump. 
According to the barrier plan, nine Marine infantry 
battalions and the 1 1th Engineer Battalion were com- 
mitted to the project. Seven of the nine infantry bat- 
talions provided a protective screen while the engineers 
and remaining infantry units installed the obstacle sys- 
tem and completed the strongpoints. General Cush- 
man estimated that this work would take another six 
weeks. During that time, troops putting in the obsta- 
cle system would be in the open and vulnerable to 
enemy fire. Cushman stated that he was ready to 
implement this part of the plan if certain minimum 
requirements were met. He wanted more artillery, air, 
and naval gunfire support, as well as a higher propor- 
tion of B— 52 Arclight strikes. Ill MAF also needed 
additional supply, taicking, and engineering units. ''^ 

Concerned about the increasing enemy strength and 
the progress of the barrier, General Westmoreland met 
with General Cushman on 7 September to make his 
own appraisal of the situation. After listening to the III 
MAF commander, Westmoreland asked Cushman to 
estimate the cost in both casualties and in material of 
continuing the emplacement of the obstacle system 
within the trace. Obviously expecting that the price 
tag would be too high, the MACV commander also 
ordered the Marine general to begin preparation of an 
alternative plan, based on the assumption of "no con- 
tinuous obstacle . . . along present trace." Ill MAF's 
estimates of the consequences of adhering to the sched- 
ule of installing the obstacles caused the inevitable 
revision of the entire project. The Marine staff project- 
ed more than 700 men killed and at least 4,000 
wounded, including both U.S. and ARVN troops, if 
the present course of action were to be followed. On 13 
September 1967, General Westmoreland approved a 
new III MAF barrier plan.^5 

The new Marine barrier plan postponed all work for 
the time being on the trace and emphasized instead the 
construction of the strongpoints and the base areas. 
Strongpoints A— 5 and A— 6 were eliminated while a 
new base area, C-4, was added just north of the Cua 
Viet. The ARVN was to construct the easternmost 
strongpoint, A— I, while the 3d Division was to remain 
responsible for the other strongpoints and the base 
areas. The plan called for the 2d ARVN Regiment to 
man all of the strongpoints eventually, while the 
Marines provided a mobile reserve force. In the western 
defile system, the Marine division would establish 
seven combat operating bases including Khe Sanh, Ca 



Lu, the Rockpile, and Camp Carroll. These four oper- 
ating bases as well as all of the eastern strongpoints 
were to be completed by 1 November As far as the 
trace was concerned, the plan only read that the 
Marines were to install "the anti-infiltration system in 
such manner as to provide the option of flirther devel- 
opment of the obstacle system . . . ."^^ 

The enemy and nature were to combine to frustrate 
the new Marine time schedule. Through September 
and early October, North Vietnamese artillery, occa- 
sionally reinforced by ground forces, in effect, laid 
siege to the Marines at Con Thien. NVA artillerymen 
maintained an average of 200 rounds per day on the 
Marine strongpoint. On 25 September, more than 
1,200 shells fell upon Con Thien. In a 10-day period, 
18—27 September, the enemy gunners fired more than 
3,000 rounds of mortars, artillery, and rockets at the 
embattled forward positions. Even as the enemy guns 
blasted away at the Marines, some of the heaviest rains 
in years fell on northern I Corps resulting in wide- 
range flooding. Swollen streams and rivers rose above 

Portrait photograph of MajGen Raymond L. Murray, a 
highly decorated veteran of both World War II and the Kore- 
an War. who in early 1 968 served as Deputy CG III MAF. 
Gen Cushman, CG III MAF. placed Gen Murray in 
charge of the barrier project. 

Department of Defense Photo (USMC) A414537 




THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



27 




Photo courtesy of Col Lee R. Bendell, USMC (Ret) 
Into 1968, Gen Westmoreland continued to show command interest in completing the barrier He is 
seen here, left, with LtGen Cushman, CG III MAF, center, and Marine BG en John R. Chaisson, 
who headed the MACV Combat Operations Center, visiting Marine Base Area C—2. 



their banks and the onrushing waters washed away 
bunkers and trenches and made a quagmire of much 
of the barrier area. Although the enemy artillery was 
relatively silent in mid-October, the building of the 
strongpoints and base areas was at a standstill. In late 
October, after a period of benign neglect during the 
struggle for Con Thien and the monsoon rains, 
MACV again put on the pressure to continue with the 
strongpoint system. The assistant division comman- 
der, General Metzger, much later observed that there 
was a constantly "changing emphasis" on the Dye- 
marker project. There would be high interest followed 
by periods of low interest "with no materials available 
and response, direction, and guidance from higher 
headquarters either slow or non-existent." Metzger 
noted that "Those on the lower levels of the military 
hierarchy became very expert .at reading the indica- 
tors" of both high and low interest." 

Aware of the difficult circumstances under which 
the Marines on the DMZ labored. General Westmore- 



land still believed that General Cushman and his staff 
should have had better control of the situation. On 22 
October, he radioed Cushman that he was unhappy 
with the "quality control" maintained by III MAF over 
the construction of the Dyemarker facilities. The 
MACV commander stated that the project had "not 
been accorded a priority consistent with its operational 
importance." He noted that he was "on record with 
higher headquarters to meet a fixed time schedule." He 
realized that the schedule could be adjusted but "any 
slippage . . . must be supported by factors recognized 
as being beyond our control . . . ." Westmoreland then 
directed General Cushman "to take immediate steps to 
correct deficiencies in the construction of the strong- 
points and to institute a positive system of qualit}' con- 
trol over construction and installation of the entire 
Dyemarker system." The strongly worded message 
concluded with a reaffirmation that "Project Dye- 
marker is an operationiil necessity second only to com- 
bat emergency. "'** 



28 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



General Cushman, in turn, was to relay this new 
emphasis on the barrier to his subordinate commanders. 
In transmitting the MACV message to Major General 
Hochmuth, then the Commanding General, 3d Marine 
Division, Cushman remarked the "screws are being 
tightened." He then told Hochmuth: "This was not 
unpredictable and I am well aware of the factors 
involved . . . Nevertheless we must give this our closest 
personal attention and insure that we are taking all pos- 
sible action within our capabilities and resources."'" 

The III MAT commander's first action was to 
appoint a completely separate staff under his deputy 
commander, Major General Raymond L. Murray, to 
oversee the entire barrier effort. General Murray's Dye- 
marker staff reevaluated the efforts relative to the bar- 
rier and came up with yet another plan. In this new 
version ot Dyemarker, the drafters reinstated Strong- 
point A— 5 and eliminated any hedging about the 
installation of the obstacle system along the trace. This 
latter feature was to be an integral component of the 
eastern sector of the barrier. Except for Srrongpoint 
A— 5, emphasis remained on completion of all of the 
eastern strongpoints by the end of the year According 
to the new schedule of completion, the 2d AKVN Reg- 
iment would take over four of the strongpoints in 
1968. The Marines would remain responsible for man- 
ning Srrongpoint A— 5 and the combat operating bases, 
except for C— 1. In the western defile system, the plan 
called for construction to begin only at the Ca Lu com- 
bat operating base during the monsoon season."' 

Despite the elaborations of his staff on the barrier 
concept. General Murray had serious reservations about 
the entire project. He later revealed that he never real- 
ly obtained a handle on the situation. Much of the Dye- 
marker material had been siphoned off by various com- 
mands for their own purposes. Many of the original 
timbers for the bunkers were green and untreated and 
began to rot under the pervasive dampness of the mon- 
soon period. The Marines had much the same problem 
relative to the enormous number of sandbags required 
for the bunkers, and their rotting caused a "constant 
replacement problem." General Murray was able to 
obtain promises from General Starbird's group in 
Washington of new timbers and of replacement items, 
but his troubles continued. The III MAP deputy com- 
mander partially blamed some ot his problems on his 
own lack of authority. He believed that the Dyemark- 
er staff should not have been separate from the III MAT 
staff. Murray stated he was not in a position "to direct- 
ly order anybody to do anything with relation to Dye- 
marker." As one of the most decorated Marine com- 



manders during "World "War II and Korea, Murray 
instinctively "sympathized with the division comman- 
der whose primar}' mission was the tactical handling of 
his troops . . . rather than build the damn line that 
nobody believed in, in the first place." The seizure of 
the site for Srrongpoint A— 3 in early December con- 
firmed Murray's doubts about Dyemarker: "How in 
the hell were you going to build this thing when you 
had to fight people off', while you were building it."-'' 

Notwithstanding the handicaps under which they 
worked, the Marines had made significant progress by 
the end of the year. The 11th Engineer Battalion, 
under wretched weather and physical conditions, 
resurfaced Route 561 with rock and partially sealed it 
with asphalt. The battalion also worked on the laying 
of the subbase for Route 566. Route 561 connected 
Route 9 with Con Thien while 566 was to run parallel 
to the trace and link the strongpoints. Assisted by the 
engineers and Nav)' Seabees, the Marine infantry had 
built 16"^ bunkers with another 234 ready, except for 
overhead cover." More than 67,000 meters of tactical 
wire had been laid and 120,000 meters of minefields 
emplaced. Srrongpoint A— 1 in the ARVN sector was 
finished as was the combat operating base C— 2, south 
of Con Thien. The remaining positions in the eastern 
strongpoint area were about 80 percent completed. In 
the western defile system, the work ar the Ca Lu 
strongpoint had proceeded with little difficult}' with 
nearly 70 percent of the bunkers and material in place. 
"With the expected arrival of additional supplies in the 
near fjture, the Marines expected to finish in February 
the installation of the obstacle system along the trace. 
The cost of these gains was dear. Not including the 
lives lost and the men wounded in tr\'ing to build Dye- 
marker, Marines spent 757,520 man-days and 1 14,5 19 
equipment-hours. More than 51,622,348 worth of 
equipment had been lost to enemy action in establish- 
ing the barrier up to this point in time.*- 

The bickering, nevertheless, over the strongpoint 
system continued. Engineer inspectors from the 
MACV D\'emarker staff made several visits while the 



*One Marine bactalion commander, Colonel John F. Mitchell, who 
commanded the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, which occupied Con Thien 
in the fall of 1967, remembered that he had a detachment of engineers 
"under my protection and operational control" for the building of Dye- 
marker. According to Mitchell, the engineer detachment worked "dur- 
ing daylight hours, mostly, in the open with heavy equipment . . . and 
showed enormous courage setting an example for all of us. ' Mitchell 
stated that the detachment suffered a higher percentage of casualties 
than his infantry Marines. Col John F. Mitchell, Comments on draft 
chapter, dtd 5Jan95 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



29 



work progressed and made several criticisms ranging 
from the size to the color of the bunkers. During two 
trips to the DMZ sector in December, General West- 
moreland expressed his dissatisfaction. He was partic- 
ularly unhappy about the fortifications at Con Thien. 
Westmoreland observed that the bunkers there were 
built to house a 900-man Marine battalion rather than 
the 400-man Vietnamese battalion which was sched- 
uled to take over the positions in the spring. Venting 
his frustrations in his personal journal, he wrote: 

I have had no end of problems with the strongpoint 
obstacle system. The reason seems to be that the Marines 
have had little experience in construction of fortifica- 
tions and therefore lack the know-how to establish them 
in the way I had visualized. I thus have been remiss in 
taking for granted that they had the background; hope- 
fully it is not too late to get the project on a solid track.""^ 

In a formal message to General Cushman, the 
MACV commander laid out in detail what he wanted 
relative to the barrier. He stated at the outset that a 
strongpoint was "to be virtually an impregnable defen- 
sive position." Westmoreland noted that it was to be 
emplaced so that an ARVN battalion with supporting 
arms could withstand an attack by an enemy division. 
He wanted the primary defense to be based on "two- 
man fighting bunkers, that are hardened, mutually 
supporting, [and] protected by a dense field of defen- 
sive wire and mines." Radars, sensors, night observa- 
tion devices, and searchlights would complement the 
defenses. General Westmoreland finally reminded the 
III MAF commander that he could consult Army Field 
Manuals 7—11 and 7—20 for further guidance on 
preparing defensive positions." 

The Marine command, on the other hand, viewed 
the MACV staff and General Westmoreland's criti- 
cisms as unjustified. Marine generals saw the barrier 
largely as an impediment to fighting the war. Building 
the fortifications for the strongpoints was a case in 
point. The 3d Division looked at the bunkers as living 
areas able to withstand "a certain amount of enemy 
attention. "^5 The actual fighting positions were outside 
the bunkers themselves. General Murray recalled that 
when General Westmoreland visited the positions, he 
called them foxholes and directed the building of cov- 
ered emplacements for the fighting positions and 
bunkers with loopholes for rifles and automatic 
weapons. The Seabees then built for the Marines a half 
dozen of the new types of bunkers which the MACV 
commander personally inspected. Murray remembered 
that Westmoreland spent most of the visit discussing 
the comparative virtues of a sloping front as compared 



with those of a solid front. According to Murray, he 
later often wondered why a MACV commander was 
concerned with "such trifles."*'' 

The 3d Division ADC, Brigadier General Metzger, 
laid much of the difficulties with the barrier directly at 
the feet of MACV. He remarked on the changing plans 
"verbally and informally, by General Westmoreland 
and seemingly on the whim of various staff officers." 
Several years later, Metzger remembered that the 
MACV commander constantly altered requirements. 
At Con Thien, "the 'bursting layer' on top of the 
bunkers was originally required to stop a mortar shell, 
that was soon increased to stop a 105mm shell. " The 
Marine general personally suspected that the "Army 
would not be unhappy if the Marine Corps did not 
accomplish a first class job on Dyemarker, and is 'nit- 
picking' with the hope of establishing a background of 
'Marine Corps incompetence." He believed that "at 
least some of the problems with MACV Headquarters 
are motivated by such a feeling.""*^ 

Thus as 1968 began, the 3d Marine Division, 
under heavy pressure from higher headquarters, con- 
tinued with its efforts to complete the strongpoint 
system according to the new guidelines. The division, 
on 31 December 1967, issued a detailed operational 
order, complete with overlays, charts, deadlines, and 
bunker designs. Based on the III MAF Dyemarker 
order of November 1967, the 3d Division directive 
specified the missions for each of the individual units. 
The 9th Marines had responsibility for most of the 
eastern strongpoint system. Its tactical area included 
all of the proposed strongpoints except for A-1 in the 
ARVN sector and A— 5, a site not yet selected. With 
support of the engineers, the regiment was to com- 
plete construction of the strongpoint at Con Thien 
and the three combat operating bases, C— 2, C— 3, and 
C-3A, strung along Route 566. To the west, the 3d 
Marines was to start on Strongpoint A-5 when so 
instructed and to finish the strongpoint at Ca Lu in 
the western defile system. The 2d ARVN Regiment 
sector contained the easternmost strongpoint, A— 1, 
and the C— 1 Combat Operating Base. On the coast, 
the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion was responsible 
for the C-4 Combat Operating Base. '"^ This emphasis 
from above had limited impact on the actual units, 
except for the issuance of additional directives. On 22 
January, the 9th Marines published its operational 
order on the barrier.''' At the troop level, Dyemarker 
remained, nevertheless, only a vague concept except 
for the building of the bunkers. The Marine infantr)'- 
men's concern wiis the ability to defend themselves 



30 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Top illustration is Department of Defense (USMC) photo A801 126 and bottom is from 12th Mar ComdC, Jan69 
Aerial views take in Strongpoint A—1. Gio Linh. top. and Base Area C—3. bottom. Marine BGen 
Louis Metzger. the id AiarDiv assistant division commander, noted the triangular shape of A—1 
and compaviJ ( - " .'" "./'■/ "^ /.,■■.,;;.,■/ Tyiiul^ Fort." 




THE 3D MARINE DIVISION AND THE BARRIER 



31 



from their positions including bunkers, fighting 
holes, trench lines, wire, and minefields against the 
enemy with as few men as possible.^" 

Bunkers and fighting holes were still subjects of dis- 
cussion among MACV, III MAF, and the ARVN 1st 
Division. General Metzger observed that the ARVN- 
built bunkers varied greatly from the Marine. He com- 
pared the A— 1 Strongpoint on the coast to "an immi- 
grants' wagon train deployed in concentric circles to 
fight off an Indian attack." According to Metzger, C-1 
looked like "an octagonal French Fort," and he 
described the Gio Linh strongpoint as "basically trian- 
gular in shape." The ARVN, he maintained, insisted 
that the bunkers "were not only for living, but also for 
fighting."5i By 14 January 1968, the MACV staff and 
ARVN staff members together with General Murray 
had worked out an agreement on the organization of the 
defenses. The ARVN accepted the concept of three-man 
fighting bunkers as opposed to l4-man living bunkers 
for primary defense. These fighting bunkers would be 
mutually supporting and connected by communication 
trenches. U.S. Seabees and engineers would prepare 
small prefabricated concrete fighting bunkers as soon as 
possible. Strongpoint A— 1 would be redesigned and the 
engineers would install new fighting bunkers at 
Strongpoints A— 2 at Gio Linh and A— 3.'- 



Work on the bunkers, minefields, and wire 
emplacements continued until the end of the month 
when "tactical requirements took precedence over Dye- 
marker."53 Earlier, on 20 January 1968, General Cush- 
man and General Westmoreland agreed to suspend the 
installation of the linear obstacle system along the trace 
"pending clarification of the enemy situation in Quang 
Tri Province. "54 For all practical purposes this was to 
end the command emphasis on the barrier As General 
Cushman later admitted, he "just quit" building what 
he termed the "fence," and "Tet came along and people 
had something else to think about."" Yet, as General 
Tompkins concluded; 

Dyemarker was a bete noire that influenced almost 
everything we did and they wouldn't let us off the hook 
.... The 3d Division was responsible for Dyemarker 
and if we were responsible for Dyemarker . . . then we 
had to have Carroll, we had to have Ca Lu, we had to 
have Con Thien, we had to have Khe Sanh. These are all 
part of this bloody thing ... it had a great deal to do 
with the 3d Division being tied to static posts."'* 



*General Earl E. Anderson, who in 1968 was the III MAF Chief of 
Staff as a brigadier general, commented that he and General Cushman 
agreed with the opinion 'expressed by General Tompkins that Dye- 
marker influenced the entire tactical situation for the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion. Gen Earl E. Anderson, Comments on draft chapter, dcd 18Dec94 
(Vietnam Comment File). 



CHAPTER 3 



The War in the Eastern DMZ in Early and Mid-January 

The NVA in the DMZ Sector — Operation Napoleon — Kentucky Operations and the Barrier 
Operation Lancaster and Heavy Fighting in Mid-January 



The NVA in the DMZ Sector 

As 1968 began, III MAF looked for the enemy to 
renew his initiative in the north. According to 
Marine inteUigence, elements of nine North Viet- 
namese regiments belonging to three different divi- 
sions were in or below the Demilitarized Zone. 
These regiments operated either under their parent 
divisions or directly under the DMZ Front Head- 
quarters. In 1967, the North Vietnamese had created 
this relatively new command, separate from the Tri 
Thien Hue Military Region, to coordinate NVA opera- 
tions in and just south of the DMZ. All told, the 
Front controlled some 21,000 troops including divi- 
sions, regiments, and separate battalions and compa- 
nies. In its annual report, MACV observed that the 
establishment of the North Vietnamese DAIZ Front 
Headquarters "was a significant strategic move by the 
enemy." The North Vietnamese had succeeded in 
tying down a large allied force in the border area and 
were in position to mount a major offensive in north- 
ern Quang Tri Province.' 

In its December 1967 enemy order of battle. III 
MAF identified elements of three regiments of the 
324B NVA Division— the 812th, the 80 5d, and 
90th — and two of the regiments of the 523C NVA 
Division — the 29th and 93th — operating south of the 
Demilitarized Zone. The Marines believed the head- 
quarters of the 323c Division and the 93th Regiment 
to be five to ten miles northwest of Khe Sanh. The 
29th NVA regimental headquarters and two battal- 
ions remained in the southern sector of the DMZ 
about 20 miles north of Khe Sanh, but with one bat- 
talion, the 8th, located only five miles north of the 
Marine base. 2 

In the eastern DMZ, FMFPac intelligence officers 
placed the 524B Division Headquarters five miles north 
of the Ben Hai River. The 812th NVA Regiment, with 
all three of its battalions, was in the southern DMZ 
below the river, about five miles north of Camp Car- 
roll. Both the 805d and 90th regimental headquarters 
were supposed to be collocated just above the Ben Hai. 



According to the FMFPac order of battle, which dif- 
fered in some details from the III MAF, the 803d had 
only one battalion with the regimental headquarters. 
Contrary to being above the DMZ as III MAF showed 
in its monthly report, FMFPac indicated the other two 
battalions, the 1st and the 5d, operated inside South 
Vietnam — the 1st, north of Con Thien, and the 3d, 
near the flat, coastal area east of Gio Linh despite its 
lack of cover and concealment.'' 

The 90th NVA Regiment also posed problems for 
the Marine intelligence community. FMFPac in its 
December summary displayed all three battalions, 
the 7th, the 8th, and the 9th, together with the regi- 
mental headquarters above the Ben Hai in the DMZ 
north of Con Thien. Ill MAF, however, had evidence 
that two battalions of the 90th had departed the reg- 
imental area, using elephants as pack animals, and 
moved west into Laos. The enemy units then entered 
South Vietnam south of Khe Sanh and traveled north- 
east. Following the Mientay, "The Road to the West," 
in this case actually the road to the east, one 600-man 
battalion ended up about five miles southwest ol 
Quang Tri City. According to agent reports, the other 
battalion, about 400 men, infiltrated south into Thua 
Thien Province. To confuse matters even more, this 
intelligence indicated that the 90th was now under 
the operational control of the 312th NVA Division 
rather than the 324B Division. This appeared to be 
unlikely, however, since the 312th had not been in the 
DMZ region since 1966 and no other reports made 
reference to this division. '* 

In addition to the 324B and the 323C Divisions, 
FMFPac intelligence officers reported another division, 
the 341st NVA, located in the Vinh Linh District of 
southern North Vietnam and obviously prepared to 
reinforce the enemy forces in the DMZ and in Quang 



* Major Gary E. Todd, who served as an intelligence officer on the 
3d Marine Division staff, commented that the North Vietnamese 
changed their unit designations "to frustrate our inteUigence collection 
efforts against them, much like a criminal uses aliases to elude police." 
Maj Gary E. Todd, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 280ct94 (Vietnam 
Comment File), hereafter Todd Comments. 



32 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



33 



ENEMY ORDER OF BATTLE 
DMZ/QUANG TRI PROVINCE 






SthBn 

^ethBn 
UNLOCATED 



jb 



659th Group 



LAOS 



18th Bfi 




4tstArm«lPuliUc 
S<>cuHty Fore* 

g]l«tB« 
^2dBn 



^ 



SdBn 




l341st Div Hq 



th Bn 
Vmi An 



CON rgl27\lnd\ 
JHIENJ 

AM LO • DONG HP^ 



4i4.31at Rtgt 
^Si341st DW 

^IrtBn 
^2dBn 

^3<>Bw 

UL32dR«gt 
2S34fst Div 

R*at ^4thBn 
>a SthBn 

^6thBn 

iM|33dR*flt 
2SJ341st Div 



ENEMY ORDER OF BATTLE 

QUANG 
DMZ TRI 
Front Heodquarters 1 


Division Headquarters 


2 


1 


Regimental Headquarters 


8 


3 


Infantry Battalions 


24 


9 


Support Battalions 


6 






r 



U V 



M,29th Regt 
2Si 



^ 



\ 



1st Bn 
803d Regt 

3cJ Bn QUANG 

TRI 



325C Div 

XlTth Bn/~" 

^^ v^ 

^9th Bn 
UNLOCATED 

\ 



10 

I „ 



KILOMETERS 



r' XTSth^Rl 

Xleoeth 
% vc 

) ^814th Bn 

/ <^8th Regt 
--—-"^^ ^9th Regt 

\ X|2d Bn 
20 




THUA THIEN 



Tri Province. The FMFPac order of battle also held 
another 5,000 enemy troops operating in southern 
Qnang Tri that could be brought up to support the 
enemy forces in the DMZ sector. These included the 
3th and 9th NVA Regiments, as well as elements of the 
6th and the 27th Independent Battalions.^ 

While building up their infantry strength in the 
DMZ sector, the North Vietnamese maintained a 
credible artillery threat to the allied forces in the 
north. With some 100 artillery pieces, rockets, and 
mortars ranging from 60mm mortars to 152mm 
field guns, the North Vietnamese had all of the 
major Marine bases in the central and eastern DMZ 
well within their artillery fan. Their Soviet-built 



Map from Marine Opiralions in Vietnam. Dti{i'^ 

130mm field guns with a range of over 27,000 
meters easily reached Dong Ha, about 15 kilometers 
south of the Ben Hai." 

Dependent upon a relatively rudimentan,- supply 
system, however, the enemy failed to sustain a high 
rate of fire, seldom reaching a level of 1,000 rounds 
per day. From April through December 1967, NVA 
American-made 105mm howitzers and 81mm/82mm 
mortars accounted for the largest amount of enemy 
artillery expenditure. Over 13,000 of the mortar shells 
and slightly more than 5,000 105mm rounds impact- 
ed in or near American defensive positions, mostly 
around Con Thien or Gio Linh. These latter two allied 
bases were the only ones that were within the range of 



34 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



the 105s. Although concerned about the enemy 
130mm field guns, Major General Raymond L. Mur- 
ray, the III MAF deputy commander recalled, "... 
they were an annoyance far more than an effective 
weapon. I don't think we lost very many people from 
them, and certainly we lost no territory as a result of 
them but it was a constant annoyance . . . ." During 
the April-December period, the North Vietnamese 
fired fewer than 500 rounds from the big guns at 
allied targets in the south. Brigadier General Louis 
Metzger, a former artillery officer and the 3d Marine 
Division assistant division commander, observed that 
the enemy artillery followed certain patterns. Usually 
his bombardments occurred around 0600, at noon, 
and at 1700 with relatively little shelling at night. 
Whenever enemy use of the heavier calibers lessened, 
his employment of mortars rose. Metzger gave the 
North Vietnamese gunners generally only fair grades. 
Despite their employment of forward observers, the 
North Vietnamese artillerymen's readjustment fires 
on American positions were often inaccurate. Yet, 
Metzger conceded that the enemy gunners and rock- 
eteers had little difficulty in targeting Dong Ha when 
they wanted.''* 

Notwithstanding that the North Vietnamese 
artillery units operated on a logistic margin, Marine 
commanders could hardly dismiss the danger they 
posed to the American defenses in the DMZ sector. 
Mortars and artillery rounds caused more than 70 
percent of the allied dead and wounded in the north. 
For example, from 3-10 December, enemy shelling 



* Major Gary E. Todd elaborated in his comments somewhat fur- 
ther on the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese artillery. While 
acknowledging that the volume of artillery fire was light compared to 
other wars, he emphasized that "this situation was different from other 
wars and this fire went beyond what we would call H&I {harassing and 
interdiction} fire." He observed that the North Vietnamese guns often 
fired on Dong Ha, for example, "when aircraft were landing or taximg 
to take off By preregistering their fires on the airstrip their first 
rounds might give them the bonus of one of our aircraft, along with 
passengers and crew." He noted, nevertheless, that the North Viet- 
namese gunners were selective in their firing so as not to give away 
their positions. Todd wrote that the North Vietnamese usually had a 
logical reason for their bombardment of Dong Ha — to keep voters 
away from the polls during an election or knowing that a few rounds 
at the Dong Ha base may explode an ammunition dump. According to 
Todd, "At any rate, the NVA artillery attack represented clever and 
cost-effective use of their assets." Todd Comments. Colonel Edwin S. 
Schick, Jr., who commanded the 12th Marines in 1968, remarked that 
the North Vietnamese gunners had the benefit of the excellent military 
maps they had appropriated from the French and that "any point that 
they wanted to hit, they could." Col Edwin S. Schick, Jr., Taped Com- 
ments on draft chapter, n.d. [1994] (Vietnam Comment File). 



resulted in 124 Marine casualties from 727 rounds 
that fell in or around the Marine defenses. Although 
the artillery fire from the north diminished towards 
the end of the month, the NVA could increase the 
pressure whenever it elected to do so.« 

With the guns massed into two major groupings, 
the North Vietnamese artillery belt extended west- 
ward some 15 kilometers from the Cap Mui Lay 
coastal region to a finger lake area just above the Ben 
Hai River. The belt contained about 130 intercon- 
nected artillery sites with each site capable of holding 
one to four guns. Reinforcing their artillery with a siz- 
able antiaircraft concentration including nine SAM— 2 
(surface-to-air missile) sites and a mix of heavy 
machine guns and antiaircraft guns up to 57mm, the 
North Vietnamese impeded American air strikes 
against the gun positions and hampered air observa- 
tion for effective counter-battery target acquisition. 9 

Both Generals Westmoreland and Metzger con- 
fessed at different times that American commanders 
lacked the detailed accurate information to determine 
the damage U.S. air and artillery inflicted upon the 
enemy defenses in the DMZ. Several years later, Gen- 
eral Metzger observed that the American estimates on 
the number of enemy guns in the DMZ were derived 
from the III MAF enemy order of battle. According 
to Metzger, all the order of battle officer did was to 
take "all the identified enemy units known to be in a 
certain area and multiplies the weapons known to be 
in those battalions, regiments, and divisions. The 
actual numbers can be significantly greater or small- 
er. " Metzger claimed that the North Vietnamese 
moved their artillery pieces almost nightly from posi- 
tion to position, playing a kind of "moving shell 
game" with American intelligence officers, gunners, 
and aviators. At best, the North Vietnamese offered 
only fleeting targets for the U.S. forces. On 6 January, 
the 9th Marines reported that the NVA had con- 
structed three new artillery positions north of the 
DMZ, each consisting of two guns and supported by 
an antiaircraft unit.'" 

While building up their infantry and combat arms 
in the north, the North Vietnamese also strengthened 
their logistic network and combat support capability 
According to Marine intelhgence estimates, the 
North Vietnamese had "demonstrated a remarkable 
degree of ingenuity " in overcoming U.S. air efforts to 
interdict their lines of communication. They quickly 
repaired roads and built pontoon or cable bridges to 
replace those damaged by American bombs. Major 
roads remained open to through truck traffic, but 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



35 



were subject to delays because of the numerous 
bypasses, fords, ferries, and damage caused by the 
bombing. As a result, the enemy often substituted 
bicycles and porters for trucks. A man on a bicycle 
could transport about 500 pounds while porters 
could carry some 50 to 60 pounds.* The NVA sup- 
plemented its human pack carriers with mules, hors- 
es, and even elephants. A horse or mule could bear 
about 150 to 300 pounds while an elephant could 
take about 1,000 pounds on its back. An animal- 
drawn bull cart could hold up to 1,500 pounds. 
These alternate modes of transportation were slower, 
but more maneuverable than motor vehicles. Never- 
theless, where and when they had the opportunity, 
the North Vietnamese continued to rely on both 
trucks and shipping to bring their supplies into the 
DMZ sector." 

The enemy lines of communication in the North 
Vietnamese panhandle from Dong Hoi south to the 
DMZ consisted of 16 interconnecting roads, five 
waterways, the national railroad, and an extensive 
trail network. At Dong Hoi, North Vietnamese 
stevedores unloaded the cargo of seagoing vessels for 
transfer either to river craft or trucks for tranship- 
ment south. The enemy then impressed ships of 800 
tons or less, or fishing junks, to ply the deeper waters 
and occasionally the open sea. Small shallow-draft 
canoe-like craft called pirogues with attached out- 
board motors were used on the more restricted 
inland water passages, such as the Ben Hai and the 
Ben Xe Rivers. Although the railroad was not func- 
tioning, its railbed served as a roadway for foot and 
bicycle traffic. The main north-south road arteries. 
Routes 101, 102, 103, and lA, connected the three 
main North Vietnamese base areas in and above the 



*The notion that a man either on a bicycle or walking a bicycle 
could move a load of 500 pounds may very well be hyperbole. Colonel 
Frederic S. Knight, a member of the 3d Marine Division staff, recalled 
a conversation that he had with news columnist Joseph Alsop: "he 
talked and I listened." According to Knight, Alsop presented the case 
of the bicycle and the 500-pound load. The Marine officer recalled he 
told Alsop that "such an assertion was unmitigated nonsense; add a 
120-pound man to the 500-pound load and the weight of the bicycle 
itself and you get an unmanageable vehicle. I doubt it could be ridden, 
and if it could, it would have to be down a gently sloping very smooth 
paved road. Imagine pushing it up rutted muddy mountainous jungle 
trails and trying to brake that load on the way down. And if the bicy- 
cle fell over, how would one man ever restore equilibrium." Knight 
remembered chat Alsop "did not address my objection beyond saying 
that he was privy to certain recondite research that indicated it was 
possible." Knight concluded, however, that this "datum go into the 
folklore category." Col Frederic S. Knight, Comments on draft chapter, 
dtd 10Jan95 (Vietnam Comment File) 



DMZ to one another and to the infiltration corridors 
further south.' 2 

The northernmost base area. Base Area (BA) 510, 
40 kilometers southeast of Dong Hoi, contained some 
19 installations, including general storage areas, a 
warehouse, a POL (petroleum, oils, and lubricants) 
facility, and an ordnance depot. Located near the junc- 
tion of Routes 101 and 103, which run southeast and 
southwest, respectively, towards the DMZ, the jungle- 
canopied base provided a relatively safe harbor for both 
troops and supplies destined for the forces further 
south. The largest of the base areas, BA 511, some 100 
kilometers in area and at one point only 10 kilometers 
southeast of BA 510, extended to the northern edge of 
the DMZ. Its confines accommodated three bivouac 
areas, six troop-staging areas, and logistic storage 
depots. Lying astride the junction of Routes 101 and 
lA, the base area served as the gateway for the North 
Vietnamese units moving south to attack the positions 
in the eastern DMZ sector.13 

The North Vietnamese also moved supplies and 
troops from both Base Areas 510 and 511 to the 
westernmost base area, BA 512, situated in the 
DMZ where North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and 
Laos all joined together. This base area included a 
large staging complex consisting of both under- 
ground shelters and surface structures. Moreover, 
with Route 103 traversing its lower sector, BA 512 
was a major transhipment point for both men and 
equipment prior to infiltration into the south. As 
1967 ended. III MAF received disturbing intelli- 
gence that NVA units coming down the "Santa Fe 
Trail," the eastern branch of the "Ho Chi Minh" Trail 
in Laos that paralleled the South Vietnamese-Laotian 
Border, were entering the Khe Sanh sector rather 
than skirting it as they had in the past. In both the 
eastern and western rims of the DMZ sector, the 
enemy appeared to be on the move.''* 

At the end of the year, American commanders and 
intelligence officers attempted to assess the enemy 
intentions. Although the North Vietnamese Army had 
suffered heavy casualties in the DMZ sector, some 
10,000 dead according to Marine sources, and had 
obviously been hurt, it was still a formidable adversary. 
General Westmoreland recognized the obvious advan- 
tages that the situation provided the enemy. He later 
remarked that the proximity of I Corps to North Viet- 
nam was "always frightening to me." Indeed, he 
declared that "it was more frightening to me than it 
was to . . . [Lieutenant General Robert E.] Cushman," 
the III MAF commanding general." 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



90 



29 



<i? 



en 



^Al 



A-aO QG'O LINH 



DMZ 



^iE'^x' QCON THIEN, ^„', 



A-4 



fr-iQA-'i X 



O C-1 



* 
* 






^ r -. 


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325C 


X 


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III 




11 


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X 


8 


X 


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(ling £>oTt9 E-Jo r»T ' 

812 



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ythtKi uA 'An 7r;6r, O -: v.. 



29? 



rivDONG 

OROCKP'E-^ENTUCKX-- 



SCOTLAND 



;— =^-%MVJf C A R RO 

LANCASTER 

O CA LU 







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^(i^^^Tnii 



EOLA^ 




KHE SANH' 



LAOS' 






S^SiS^TST 







<Sa^ = 






Eii^ 



MAJOR ENEMY UNITS 

IN NORTHERN QUANG TRI 

JANUARY 1968 




Kilometers i_ 



10 

_i 



Marine commanders and staffs, nevertheless, shared 
some of Westmoreland's concerns. At the beginning of 
the year, the headquarters of the Fleet Marine Force, 
Pacific in Hawaii prepared a 92-page "Estimate of the 
Enemy Situation, DMZ Area, Vietnam, 1 January 
1968." In this detailed study, the FMFPac intelligence 
staff outlined both the perceived NVA strengths and 
weaknesses, the options available to the NVA com- 
manders, and their most likely courses of action. "^ 

According to the FMFPac staff, the North Viet- 
namese Army was "one of the best in Southeast Asia . 
. . ." The NVA adapted well to the DMZ situation 
where they knew the exact location of the American 
positions and were generally more familiar with the 
terrain than the Marines. Although limited for the 
most part to movement by foot, the North Vietnamese 
soldier also gained a singular leverage from this appar- 
ent liability. As the Marine report noted, "This is cer- 
tainly a slow mode, but due to this circumstance he 
[the NVA soldier] is restricted only from those areas 
which are virtually impassable to foot movement." 
Acknowledging the relative high morale and dedica- 
tion of the North Vietnamese Army, the FMFPac staff 
writers observed that one of the enemy's major attrib- 
utes was that he viewed "the present conflict as one 
which has existed for two generations, and he has no 



great expectations that it will end soon, thus all of his 
actions are tempered by patience. ''^ 

The enemy, nevertheless, had obvious vulnerabilities. 
His troops lacked technical and mechanical training and 
experience. North Vietnam's "archaic logistical support 
system " depended upon a large reservoir of manpower 
and the NVA "continually revealed an inability to exploit 
any tactical opportunity calling for the rapid deployment 
of units and material." Moreover, the lack of modem 
communications often prevented senior NVA comman- 
ders from influencing decisions at critical moments once 
the battle was joined, handicapped by their limited capa- 
bility to coordinate and control their units in rapidly 
changing situations. Prisoner interrogation also revealed 
that the high morale of the NVA soldier deteriorated "the 
longer he remains below the Ben Hai River."'** 

Balancing the assets and debits of the NVA forces in 
the north, the FMFPac staff officers then evaluated the 
most likely stratagem that the enemy would adopt in 
the DMZ sector. According to the Marine analysis, the 
North Vietnamese had various feasible alternatives, the 
most likely being: 

1. a division-strength attack into northeastern 
Quang Tri to "estabhsh temporary control of selected 
areas . . . .; 

2. conduct multi-battalion or regimental-size attacks 
against "multiple" allied targets between Highway 9 and 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



37 



the DMZ using forces both in eastern Quang Tri and near 
Khe Sanh. Might attempt "to hold Khe Sanh at least 
temporarily . . . because of its remoteness . . . .; 

3. continue the present "pattern of harassing friend- 
ly forces with hit and run attacks, interdiction of lines 
of communication with battalion-size forces . . . .; 

4. continue the present pattern and also fortify areas 
and ambush sites in Quang Tri to trap friendly forces 
and "dissipate our efforts and to inflict heavy personnel 
casualties and equipment losses on friendly forces . . . . ; 

5. withdraw all forces north of the Ben Hai and 
strengthen defenses. '9 

Given these choices, the FMFPac report concluded 
that the North Vietnamese would probably elect a 
combination of options 1 and 2, while at "the same 
time harass friendly forces with hit and run attacks, 
mining, and interdiction of lines of communications." 
Despite the NVA's recent reverses in the DMZ, the 
FMFPac staff members believed that the North Viet- 
namese leadership, "imbued with a Dien Bien Phu 
mentality," wanted to inflict a series of tactical defeats 
and heavy casualties among U.S. forces that would 
demoralize the American "home front" and make con- 
tinued U.S. participation in the war politically unten- 
able. On 13 January, General Cushman, the III MAF 
commander, radioed General Westmoreland, "An 
immediate enemy threat to III MAF forces is poised 
west of Khe Sanh. Additional heavy enemy concentra- 
tions are indicated in the A Shau Valley as well as in 



and north of the DMZ." At this point, both MACV 
and the Marine command perceived northern I Corps 
as the most likely setting for any major enemy push.^" 

Operation Napoleon 

Along the DMZ, much of the war was indistin- 
guishable from the preceding year. Work on the barri- 
er continued and the same politically based rules of 
engagement applied to the DMZ. U.S. ground forces 
could not cross the Ben Hai River, but were allowed to 
conduct operations in the Demilitarized Zone south of 
the demarcation line and return fire across the line. 
Artillery, naval gunfire, and air missions were permit- 
ted against valid targets in the north. MACV insisted, 
however, that the Marine command notify it of every 
action against the North Vietnamese under these 
ground rules. Marine units remained in the identical 
sectors, each with its designated operational name, 
that they had manned in December.-' 

In the DMZ, the 3d Marine Division maintained 
three distinct tactical areas designated by operational 
codenames. Napoleon, Kentucky, and Lancaster. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Edward R. Toner's 1st Amphibian 
Tractor Battalion was responsible for the Napoleon 
Area of Operations, extending some three miles above 
and two miles below the Cua Viet waterway and two 
miles inland from the coast. The battalion's mission 
was to safeguard the vital Cua Viet Port Facility and 



Navy LSTs (landing ship, tank) and smaller seagoing vessels could be unloaded at the Cua Viet Port 
Facility in the DMZ Sector, and transhipped to the main Marine base upriver at Dong Ha. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A801124 




38 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



companion logistic support facility as well as protect 
the river supply route to Dong Ha. 

With the establishment at the mouth of the Cua 
Viet of an LST (landing ship, tank) ramp in March 
1967, ships' cargoes could be unloaded onto LCUs 
(landing craft, utility) and LCMs (landing craft, mech- 
anized) lor the trip upriver to Dong Ha. As Marine 
forces and facilities expanded in northern Quang Tri, 
the Cua Viet supply channel became even more crucial 
to the Marine command. By the end ol the year, the 
Navy Cua Viet Port Facility could accommodate two 
LSTs, three LCU's, and three LCM's, and move 940 
short tons daily through to Dong Ha.-- 

The 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion had trans- 
ferred Irom the Da Nang TAOR to its new command 
post at the Cua Viet Port Facility at the end of April 
1967 to provide general support for the 3d Marine 
Division. At the same time, the commanding officer of 
the amphibian tractor battalion became the Cua Viet 
installation coordinator and responsible for both the 
defense and administration of the Cua Viet area. In 
November, the 3d Marine Division divided Operation 
Kingfisher, the codename for the division campaign in 
the DMZ eastern sector, into the three operations of 
Lancaster, Kentucky, and Napoleon. In Operation 
Napoleon, Lieutenant Colonel Toner remained respon- 
sible for roughly the same area that the "Amtrackers" 
had been operating all along.-^ 

The battalion had the additional duty to construct 
the C-4 Combat Operating Base, about 2,000 meters 
north of the Cua Viet, and to assist the adjoining 
ARVN 2d Regiment to build the A-1 Strong Point, 
another 3,000 meters to the northwest. The A— 1 and 
C— 4 positions marked the eastern terminus of the bar- 
rier. While helping with the work on the barrier in 
December, Toner's Marines on the 11th engaged in 
some of the heaviest fighting of the month. In the sand 
dunes and scrub pine growth near the fishing village of 
Ha Loi Toi just north of C-^, the battalion in a day- 
long battle killed 54 of the enemy at a cost of 20 
wounded Marines. Five days later the Cua Viet Facili- 
ty came under artillery and rocket attack which result- 
ed in 5 Marines killed and 31 wounded. Through the 
end of 1967, according to Marine statistics, Operation 
Napoleon accounted for 87 enemy dead and the cap- 
ture of 2 prisoners at a loss of 10 Marine dead and 48 
wounded and evacuated.^'' 

In January 1968, Lieutenant Colonel Toner's battal- 
ion consisted of his Headquarters and Support Com- 
pany, Companies A and B, and an attached infantry 
company. Company C, from the 1st Battalion, 3d 



Marines. A platoon of six LVTH— 6s (an amphibian 
tractor with a turret-mounted 105mm howitzer) from 
the 1st Armored Amphibian Company, attached to the 
2d Battalion, 12th Marines, provided artillery support. 
A mortar section of three 4.2 mortars from the 12th 
Marines reinforced the fires of the howitzers.-'* 

With its flat sandy coastal plain and the Cua Viet 
waterway, the Napoleon area of operations was ideal 
terrain for Toner's battalion. The battalion commiander 
had at his disposal 64 troop-carrying LVTP— 5s (land- 
ing vehicle tracked, personnel), 6 command and con- 
trol tractors, 4 LVTEs (landing vehicle tracked, engi- 
neer) used for mine clearing, and 2 LVTR— Is (landing 
vehicle tracked, retriever) for repair purposes. These 
lightly armored amphibian tractors afforded mobility 
both on land and water. Within minutes, the Marines 
could reinforce any trouble spot within the TAOR.26 

Early January was a relatively quiet period for the 
amtrac Marines. They busied themselves with civic 
action in the nearby fishing village of Gia Hai, work- 
ing on C— 4, and building revetments for the tractors. 
Marine Sergeant Ron Asher with the attached Compa- 
ny C, 3d Marines at C-4 wrote his mother in Decem- 
ber 1967 that he spent most of his '"down time' from 
patrols filling sandbags, and getting the amtracs and 
tanks dug in."-^ 

During a visit to the battalion on Christmas Day, 
General Westmoreland had expressed his dissatisfac- 
tion about the lack of protection for the amphibian 
vehicles. In relaying this concern to Lieutenant Colonel 
Toner, the 3d Division commander, General Tomp- 
kins, suggested that the battalion use steel revetments 
combined with oil drums and ammunition boxes filled 
with sand to safeguard the LVTs.-'^ 

It was not until mid-month that the North Viet- 
namese made any serious attempt to probe anew the 
Marine positions in Napoleon. On 14 January, a 
Marine patrol, about 2,500 meters south of the Cua 
Viet near the coast, came across a design drawn in the 
sand, consisting of four circles with a huge arrow in the 



*A later successor to Lieutenant Colonel Toner as battalion com- 
mander, Lieutenant Colonel Walter W. Damewood, observed that the 
1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion in 1968 "had to be one of the most 
unique Marine battalions of the time in terms of personnel and equip- 
ment structure." He noted that in addition to its normal complement 
of personnel and equipment, the battalion had attached to it: Marine 
combat engineers, Marine infantry and tanks, and reconnaissance ele- 
ments as well as Army armored personnel, and South Vietnamese Pop- 
ular Force troops. He noted that the members of the battalion became 
known as "Am Grunts" because of the infantry role and mission 
assigned to them. LtCol Walter W. Damewood, Jr., Comments on draft 
chapter, dtd 31Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



39 




Top photo from 12th Mar ComdC, Jan69; bottom photo courtesy of Ron Asher 
Combat Base Area C-4 appears in the top photo, while the bottom picture displays a typical bunker 
at C~4 in January 1968. The 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion in Operation Napoleon had the 
main responsibility for the construction of C—4 as well as the protection of the Cua Viet sector. 




40 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



center pointing northwest towards tlie battalion com- 
mand post. Making the obvious conclusion that this 
was a crude aiming stake for enemy mortars, the 
Marines changed the direction of the arrow so that 
any rounds fired Irom that site would fall into the sea. 
That same night, about 1,000 meters to the south- 
west, a Marine squad ambush from Company B, 1st 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion, just outside the village 
of Tuong Van Tuong, saw nearly 50 enemy troops 
moving on line towards them from the southeast. The 
Marine squad leader immediately called for artillery 
support. Within two minutes, the 105mms on the 
LVTH— 6s dropped more than 100 rounds upon the 
advancing enemy. The NVA soldiers regrouped 
twice, but "broke each time under fire." A Marine 
looking through his starlight scope observed a num- 
ber of enemy troops fall, but when two reinforced 
Marine platoons from Company B checked the area 
the following morning there were no bodies. 
Throughout the DMZ sector, the enemy appeared 
once more attempting to infiltrate into and behind 
the allied positions.^'' 

Kentucky Operations and the Barrier 

Aligned along both sides of Route 1, the 2d 
ARVN Regiment filled in the gap between the 
Napoleon and Kentucky area of operations. Part of the 
highly rated 1st ARVN Division, the regiment occu- 
pied in December both the A-1 and A— 2 Strong 
Points of the barrier and the C-1 base area. Major Vu 
Van Giai, the regimental commander, whom the 
Marines described as "an impressive officer with a 
good command of English, ' established his command 
post at C— 1, located just west of the railroad and 
Route 1, about 6,000 meters south of Gio Linh. Giai 
kept one battalion at the C— 1 base and deployed two 
battalions forward, one at A-1, near the destroyed 
fishing village of An My, about 2,000 meters below 
the DMZ, and the other at A— 2, just above Gio Linh. 
On 3 January, Giai moved his reserve battalion, the 2d 
Battalion, 2d ARVN, from below Gio Linh to new 
positions north of the Cua Viet in the vicinity of Dong 
Ha. As a result of this relocation, the regiment and the 
9th Marines in Operation Kentucky readjusted their 
boundaries. Nominally, the A-2 stronghold at Gio 
Linh, although manned by the ARVN, remained in 
the 9th Marines TAOR. According to the barrier 
plan, the ARVN eventually were to take over also the 
A— 3 Strong Point, located halfway between Gio Linh 
and Con Thien, when it was finished.^" 



Until that time, however, the defense and building of 
the barrier lay with the 9th Marines in Kentucky. 
Encompassing "Leatherneck Square," the approximate- 
ly six-by-eight-mile area, outlined by Gio Linh and 
Dong Ha on the east and Con Thien and Cam Lo on the 
west, the 9th Marines area of operations included three 
of the five strong points of the "Trace" and two of the 
combat operating bases of the barrier, C— 2 and C— 3. The 
terrain in Kentucky varied from low-lying hills inter- 
spersed by woods and rice paddies in the northern sector 
to the cultivated Cam Lo River Valley in the south 
extending from Cam Lo to Dong Ha. Route 1 connect- 
ed Gio Linh to Dong Ha and Route 561 extended from 
Con Thien to Cam Lo. Route 605 in the north linked 
the strong points along the trace to one another while 
Route 9, south of the Cam Lo River, ran from Dong Ha 
into Laos. All of these lines of communication, except for 
Route 1 , required extensive engineer roadwork, includ- 
ing paving, widening, and resurfacing, to meet the 
logistical requirements of the barrier effort. 

Although Operation Kentucky officially began on 
1 November 1967, the 9th Marines was no stranger in 
its area of operations. The regiment remained respon- 
sible for the same ground and positions that it held 
during the previous operation. Kingfisher For aU prac- 
tical purposes, the change of designation only served to 
provide a convenient dividing line to measure with the 
body-count yardstick the relative progress of the DMZ 
campaign. The identical concept of operations contin- 
ued in effect: the 9th Marines was to hold on to Leath- 
erneck Square, protect Dong Ha, build the barrier, and 
throw back any North Vietnamese forces attempting 
to infiltrate into the I Corps coastal plain. ^> 

In January 1968, Colonel Richard B. Smith, who had 
assumed command of the regiment the previous Sep- 
tember, controlled from his command post at Dong Ha 
four infantry battalions and part of another, the 2d Bat- 
talion, 9th Marines. Except for the two companies of the 
2d Battalion, all of the other battalions belonged admin- 
istratively to other regiments, the 1st, 3d, and 4th 
Marines. The 2d Battalion, 1st Marines defended the 
A— 4 Strong Point at Con Thien; the 3d Battalion, 3d 
Marines worked on the fortifications of the A— 3 Strong 
Point with three companies; the 3d Battalion, 4th 
Marines screened A— 3 from positions on Hill 28, north 
of the trace; and the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines occupied 
the C— 2 and C— 2A combat operating bases on Route 
561. Further south, the two companies of the 9th 
Marines protected the Cam Lo Bridge where Route 561 
crossed the Cam Lo River and the 2d Battalion, 12th 
Marines artillery positions on Cam Lo Hill, the C-3 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



41 



combat operating base. The remaining rifle company of 
the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, Company M, attached to 
the 12th Marines, guarded the provisional Marine 
artillery battalion situated at the Gio Linh fire support 
base, south of the ARVN in the A-2 Strong Point.« 

A sea-going Marine during World War II and an 
infantry company commander during the Korean 
War, Colonel Smith had definite ideas about the war 
in the DMZ. He later observed that the Marines were 
"sitting in defensive positions up there playing strict- 
ly defensive combat . . . ." Smith believed that the 
troops required training in defensive warfare. He 
claimed that was an unpopular viewpoint since 
"Marines are always supposed to be in an assault over 
a beach, but this just isn't the name of the game out 
there." The emphasis was on good defensive positions 
and clear lines of fire.^s* 

With the command interest in the barrier at the 
beginning of the year, the strong points and combat 
operating bases in the 9th Marines sector took on even 
more importance. Anchoring the western segment of 
the cleared trace, the A— 4 Strong Point at Con Thien 
continued to play a major role in the regiment's defen- 
sive plan.** Located less than two miles south of the 
DMZ, Con Thien, although less than 160 meters high, 
dominated the surrounding terrain. Colonel Smith 
observed that if the enemy had held the position, "he 
would be looking down our throats " at Dong Ha.^^ 

Lieutenant Colonel Evan L. Parker, Jr.'s 2d Battal- 
ion, 1st Marines had taken over the responsibility of 
the Con Thien defense in mid-December. A 1st 



*There is dispute among some officers who served with the 3d Bat- 
taUon, 3d Marines attached to the 9th Marines, whether there were 
standing operating procedures relating to restrictions on patroUing. A 
former company executive officer recalled that there were definite lim- 
itations on how far platoons and companies could move from their par- 
ent unit, 250 yards for platoons and 500 yards for companies. On the 
other hand, a former battalion commander and company commander 
with the 3d Battalion recalled no such limitations. The author found 
no listing of such restrictions in the 9th Marines Command Chronolo- 
gy for January 1968. The consensus seems to be that if there were such 
restrictions they were not always enforced and perhaps not even 
known. For the various viewpoints see Chambers Intvw and Maj Jus- 
tice M. Chambers, Jr., Comments on draft chapter, dtd 17Dec94 (Viet- 
nam Comment File); LtCol Otto Lehrack, Comments on draft chapter, 
dtd 290ct94 (Vietnam Comment File); and Col Robert C. Needham, 
Comments on draft chapter, dtd 7Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), 
hereafter Needham Comments. 

**Lieutenant General Metzger observed that Con Thien and Gio 
Linh had been French forts, which indicated very early that both sites 
were recognized as key terrain. LtGen Louis Metzger, Comments on 
draft chapter, dtd 170ct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Met- 
zger Comments, 



Marine Division unit, the battalion quickly learned 
the differences between the DMZ war and the pacifi- 
cation campaign further south. In contrast to the light- 
ly armed and elusive VC guerrillas in the south, the 
North Vietnamese here often stood their ground, sup- 
ported by heavy machine guns, mortars, and artillery. 
By the time the battalion occupied Con Thien, it had 
accommodated to the DMZ environment. >5 

The Marines of the 2d Battalion in December 
worked feverishly on the A-4 Strong Point defenses. 
During the Christmas truce period the battalion added 
1 1 bunkers and dug a new trench along the forward 
slope. The troops then sandbagged the bunkers with a 
"burster layer" in the roofs, usually consisting of air- 
field matting "to burst delayed fuse rounds." They 
then covered the positions with rubberized tarps to 
keep the water out. By the end of the year, all of the 
new bunkers had been sandbagged and wired in with 
the new razor-sharp German-type barbed wire. Pro- 
tected by a minefield to its front, surrounded by wire, 
and supported by air, artillery, and tanks, the 2d Bat- 
talion lay relatively secure in its defenses at the exposed 
Con Thien outpost.^'' 

As the new year began, the Con Thien Marines 
enjoyed a small reprieve from the shooting war. Both 
sides more or less adhered to the terms of the shaky hol- 
iday truce, despite a small enemy probe of a Marine lis- 
tening post on the perimeter. According to a Marine 
reporter, on New Year's Day, a Marine forward artillery 
observer at Con Thien looking through his binoculars 
at enemy forward positions across the Ben Hai sudden- 
ly spotted a large NVA flag with its single star embla- 
zoned on a bright red background waving "in the 
breeze atop a rather crude flagpole . . . . " Other Marines, 
mostly young infantrymen, crowded around to take 
their turn to see for what most of them was their first 
tangible symbol of the enemy.*** Secure in their convic- 
tion that the Marines would adhere to the cease-fire, the 
NVA deliberately taunted the American troops. Impa- 
tiently the Marine gunners waited the few hours lor the 



***According to Lieutenant Colonel Octo Lehrack, who was a 
company commander with the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, it was not so 
unusual to see a NVA flag north of the Ben Hai River "just about any 
time you were on the cliffs near Gio Linh." He does concede, however, 
that the truce period may have been the only time that the 2d Battal- 
ion, 1st Marines may have had an opportunity to see the North Viet- 
namese banner. LtCol Otto Lehrack, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 
290ct94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Lehrack Comments. See 
also Otto J. Lehrack, No Shhihig Armor, The Marines at War in Vietnam. 
An Oral History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 
pp. 211-12. 



42 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Top photo courtesy of Col Joseph L. Sadowski, USMC (Ret), and bottom photo courtesy of Col Lee R. Bendeil, USMC (Ret) 
The Marine base at Con Thien (A-4) is seen at top. with Marines constructing bunkers at A—i in 
photograph at bottom. Col Lee R. Benckll, whose 3d Battalion, 4th Marines served at Con Thien 
in 1967, observed that NYA artillery fire "necessitated overhead protection." 




THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



43 






»p'3g,.».^ 






7 



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,fc' CON THiEN/ O 



USMC 
CHARLIE 4 
^^CUA VIET 



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USMC >1 USMC 






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LANCASTER 

O CA LU 




o 

KHES/VNH 

■ 'r ';"'jSiHuon9;'Hi»--,\'"^-, 

' jLong HiirL. . 





CAMP CARR0LH 



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UNIT HEADQUARTERS IN 

QUANG TRI PROVINCE 

JANUARY 1968 




Kilometers i_ 



10 



"false peace" to come to an end. As the time for the 
truce expired, the Con Thien guns opened up on the 
approaches to the defensive perimeter. The defenders 
then plotted a fire mission to take out the flag. Minutes 
before the artillerymen fired the first round the NVA 
hauled down their colors. In a way, this incident mir- 
rored many of the frustrations of the Marines in the 
DMZ. The average 19-year-old manning the defenses 
at Con Thien and his commanders had difficulty under- 
standing the validity of such artificialities as demilita- 
rized zones that were not demilitarized, and cease-fires 
that appeared only to benefit the enemy" 

The war soon resumed for the 2d Battalion at Con 
Thien. Although the Intensity of combat never reached 
the level of September and October, the North Viet- 
namese persisted in their probes and occasional bom- 
bardment of the Marine outpost. The incoming mor- 
tar, artillery, and recoilless rifle rounds soon reached the 
level experienced by the defenders' immediate prede- 
cessors. As recorded in the battalion's monthly report, 
the "incoming was more harassing than destructive in 
nature . . . ."^s On 5 January, the NVA gunners 
mortared Con Thien in groups of three to five bursts 
between 0945 and 1015. A total of 37 rounds, includ- 
ing five 120mm shells, fell on the Marine positions, 
with a direct hit on the battalion command post. This 



resulted in one Marine killed, and eight wounded, 
including Lieutenant Colonel Parker, the battalion 
commander. Both Marine air and artillery attacked the 
suspected enemy firing positions, but the Marine com- 
mand had no way of knowing the effectiveness of these 
efforts. After the medical evacuation of Lieutenant 
Colonel Parker, Major James T. Harrell III, the execu- 
tive officer, was named acting commander of the bat- 
talion. On 9 January, Lieutenant Colonel Billy R. 
Duncan officially relieved Lieutenant Colonel Parker as 
battalion commander and Harrell resumed his duties 
as executive officer. The enemy shelling of Con Thien 
remained sporadic, averaging about 30 rounds on 
those days the NVA chose to fire.^''' 

On the ground, the North Vietnamese had taken 
advantage of the holiday tmce period to bring up fresh 
units and continued the pressure on the Marine outpost. 
The 803ci NVA Regiment relieved the 90th N\'A in the 
positions facing Con Thien. Almost daily, small patrols 
from the 803d tested the Marine defenses. For example, 
on 10 January, Company H reported in the early morn- 
ing hours that "it had spotted three men, by starlight 
scope, moving in a westerly direction." The Marines 



* During Januar)', the enemy fired on Con Tliien 21 ot die 31 days 
in the month. 2/1 ComdC, Jan6S, p. 11^. 



44 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



fired three M~9 grenade rounds and later checked the 
area "with negative results. " Later that night, about 
2100, a Marine squad fi:om Company F on the north- 
eastern perimeter picked up enem\- movement on its 
radar scope and called in a mortar mission. A Marine 
platoon patrol that went out to m\'estigate the results of 
the action "blundered into [a] h"iendly minefield" and 
sustained three casualties, one dead and tvv'o wounded.^" 

A few days afirer this incident, the night of 14 Jan- 
uary, Con Thien Marines heard an explosion in the 
minefield directly to the north of their defenses. The 
Marines fired illumination and saw a wounded NVA 
soldier lying in the minefield and other North Viet- 
namese troops withdrawing. A Marine squad 
equipped with a starlight scope then attempted to 
recover the wounded man. By the time it reached the 
area, the Marines found no one there. Shortly after- 
ward, a Marine outpost sighted about four to five NVA 
entering the battalion's perimeter apparently to 
retrieve their injured comrade. Another mine went off. 
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan sent a platoon out to check 
for any enemy casualties. About 0120 on the morning 
of the 15th, the Marine patrol as it neared the mine- 
field "heard whistling and a great deal of noise," evi- 
dence of a large enemy force nearby. Both sides with- 
drew under covering fires. The NVA used recoiiless 
rifles, small arms, and 60mm mortars to make good 
their retreat while Marine artillery- and mortars target- 
ed the enem\- escape routes. Two Marines received 
minor wounds. About 1000 that morning a Marine 
patrol returned to the area where the enemy was last 
seen and found a pick, a wrench, a poncho "with frag- 
mentation holes and large blood stains. '-•' 

For the Marines of the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines in 
January, their tour at Con Thien, like the units before 
them, was their "time in the barrel." As Lieutenant 
Colonel Duncan many years later recalled, the North 
Vietnamese artillery destroyed much of the northwest 
minefield protecting the Marine outpost "as well as the 
forward trenches and bunkers in that area. Casualties 
were mounting. The hospital bunkers exceeded capac- 
ity with wounded on stretchers." The battalion com- 
mander remembered that one of the chaplains "broke 
under stress and attempted suicide. "^^ 

Route 561, running north and south, was the lifeline 
for Con Thien. To keep this raad open. General Metzger 
remembered that Marine engineers in 1967 "straight- 
ened out the route by cutting a 'jog' in the raad that 
went to a by-then deserted village which reduced the 
length to Con Thien and simplified security." Despite 
this improvement, other complications arose. According 



to Metzger, once the torrential rains came the water 
washed out the road. It took the engineers an extended 
time to obtain sufficient rock until they could build "a 
suitable roadbed" to carry the heavy traffic.-'^ 

The Marines also established two combat operating 
bases, C— 2 and C— 2A, to protect Route 561. About 
2,000 meters southeast of Con Thien, the C— 2A base 
overlooked a bridge spanning a stream which intersect- 
ed the road there. The Marines nicknamed the area the 
""Washout," because in heavy rainstorms, the waters 
flooded the low-lying ground. Another 3,000 meters to 
the southeast was the C— 2 base which contained both 
artillen,' and intantr}' fixed positions. The terrain along 
Route 561 between Con Thien and Cam Lo consisted 
of low-rolling hiUs, numerous gullies, and waist-high 
brush. From both the C— 2A and C— 2 bases Marine 
patrols ventured forth "to keep the NVA off the road."*" 

In Januar}^ 1968, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin A. 
Deptula's 1st Battalion, 4th Marines occupied both 
the C— 2 and C— 2A positions, having just relieved 
the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines in the sector. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Deptula established his command 
post at C— 2 with Companies A and B. His executive 
officer. Major John I. Hopkins, formed a second 
command group and with Companies C and D held 
C-2A. Throughout the first weeks of the month, the 
battalion ran numerous squad- and platoon-sized 
combat patrols out of both C— 2 and C— 2A for dis- 
tances of 1,500 meters from each of the bases and 
from Route 561. Actually the most significant 
action in the battalion's area of operations involved 
another unit. On 10 Januar\\ a small patrol from the 
3d Reconnaissance Battalion came across three NVA 
in a palm-covered harbor site, about 3,000 meters 
east of C— 2. The reconnaissance Marines killed two 
of the enemy, took one prisoner, and captured all 
three of their weapons. ^^ 

As part of the barrier system, the central effort at 
C— 2 in early Jan uar}- was the completion of the bunker 
defenses. Several support units, including engineers, 
artiUer}-, and tank and antitank detachments, shared 
the base area with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. 
Although the engineers ran daily mine sweeps along 
Route 561 to Con Thien to keep the road open, they, 
as all the tenant units, assisted with the construction 
efibrt. On 10 January-, a "Dyemarker" (barrier) team 
visited the C— 2 site to inspect the defenses. According 
to the 1st Battalion's monthly chronology, "None of 
the bunkers could be considered complete. Maximum 
effort was later directed at bunker completion in keep- 
ing with the tactical situation. "'<> 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



45 




Top is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190200 and bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190197. 
Marine engineers with a bulldozer are building ammunition storage bunkers at Combat Base Area 
C-4, top, and a Marine platoon from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines is seen at work building a 
bunker emplacement at C-4 with sandbags for overhead cover in January, bottom. 




-"^^is^m 



46 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Colonel Smith, the regimental commander, later 
explained some of the handicaps that the Marine units 
worked under in getting the work on the barrier com- 
pleted. Few of the units had "backhoes" to assist in 
digging foxholes or bunker foundations. He observed 
that the machines could "do in two hours what it 
takes a whole battalion to do in two days." Despite 
scarcity of equipment, Smith also partially blamed 
Marine training for not teaching the troops "proper 
bunkering procedures — sandbagging." He compared 
sandbagging technique to laying out bricks "with 
headers and stretchers." The regimental commander 
remarked that he saw more wasted effort with the 
sandbags "because the man doesn't know what he is 
doing and the NCO supervising him doesn't know 
any more about it than he does so the wall gets to be 
six-feet high and collapses . . . and there goes three 
days' work gone to Hell." Overcoming the limitations 
imposed by its own inexperience in constructing 
bunkers and the lack of heavy earth-moving equip- 
ment, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines would complete 
47 of the scheduled 81 bunkers in the C-2 base site 
by the end of the month.-*^ 

South ot Deptula's 1st Battalion in Kentucky were 
a small command group and two companies of Lieu- 
tenant Colonel William M. Cryan's 2d Battalion, 9th 
Marines. In December, just before Christmas, the 2d 
Battalion had moved from positions north of A-3 in 
Operation Kentucky to Camp Carroll in the 3d 
Marines' Lancaster area of operations. A few days later. 
Lieutenant Colonel Cryan detached his Companies F 
and G and placed them under his executive officer. 
Major Dennis J. Murphy. While Cryan and the rest of 
the battalion remained at Camp Carroll, Murphy and 
his command returned to the Kentucky area of opera- 
tions and relieved the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines at Cam 
Lo. Company F occupied the C-3 Cam Lo artillery 
position, 1,000 meters above the Cam Lo River on 
Route 561, while Company G protected the Cam Le 
Bridge (C— 3A) on Route 9 at the river. ''^ 

In the Cam Lo sector, the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines 
patrolled Route 561 to keep the main supply route 
open to Con Thien and the farming villages above the 
river. At the C-3 base, Company F, together with sup- 
porting artillery and engineers, worked on the 
improvement of the Dyemarker defenses. On 1 5 Janu- 
ary, the Marines at C— 3 completed the bunker require- 
ments on schedule. During this period, the Marine 
patrols encountered few enemy troops. In fact, during 
the first two or three weeks of the month, the enemy 
limited his activity to a mining incident on Route 561 



on 2 January and to infiltrating the hamlets above the 
Cam Lo River at night. In these nocturnal visits, Viet 
Cong guerrillas recruited or kidnapped villagers and 
demanded food and other supplies. During the first 
two weeks of January, one Popular Force unit west of 
the hamlet of An My on three separate occasions 
ambushed VC troops trying to enter the village, 
killing at least three of the enemy. By the end of the 
third week, the 2d Battalion reported, however, "it was 
clear that there was a large amount of movement in 
and out of these villages, particularly to the east. " In 
their patrolling of the hilly brush terrain in the Cam 
Lo northern area of operations, 2d Battalion Marines 
by mid-January made contact with more and more 
North Vietnamese regulars coming down.-"' 

To the northeast of the 2d Battalion at C— 3 and 
C-3A, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Needham's 3d 
Battalion, 3d Marines concentrated on finishing the 
last of the strong points along the "Trace," A— 3, in the 
9th Marines sector. In November, Marine engineers, 
later reinforced by a Seabee battalion, had begun work 
on the strong point. Designed according to ARVN 
specifications. A— 3 was to consist of 30 18 x 32 feet 
bunkers, heavily timbered and sandbagged and cov- 
ered by dirt. These were to sleep up to 18 ARVN 
troops on three-tiered wooden bunks. By Christmas, 
the Seabees and engineers had completed the raising of 
the timbers of the bunkers and departed, "leaving to 
the infantry the task of finishing the sandbagging." Up 
to this point, the Special Landing Force (SLF) Alpha 
battalion, BLT 1/3, had been attached to the 9th 
Marines and assigned to the A— 3 position. At the end 
of December, the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines with three 
companies moved from the Cam Lo sector to the A— 3 
position and relieved the SLF battalion, which was to 
join the 1st Marines at Quang Tri.5o* 



* General Metzger commented that A-3 was a special situation: 
"first we had to fight to clear the ground of the enemy. Then as Christ- 
mas approached General Westmoreland suggested we withdraw until 
after Christmas and abandon the positions 'so there would be no casu- 
alties during the holidays.' We resisted to the maximum, pointing out 
that the enemy would occupy the position in our absence . . . the casu- 
alties in retaking the position would far exceed those which we might 
sustain in completing the position. In order to avoid abandoning the 
partially completed position we guaranteed that it would be completed 
before Christmas. A-3 was given the highest priority. Bunker material 
was flown in by helicopter and maximum effort was expended which 
was completed well before Christmas." Metzger Comments. Colonel 
Robert C. Needham, who commanded the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines at 
the time, remembered "the stringing of defensive wire and emplacing 
AP mines around the perimeter was, for all intents and purposes, com- 
pleted when 3/3 relieved SLF 'A (1/3) at A-3." Needham Comments. 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



47 



Although the Seabees with their heavy equipment 
had left, the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines had much work 
to do at A-3. The rains had come during December 
and the only fill for the sandbags was "sticky mud." 
A— 3 still required defensive wire and some 30,000 
mines to be laid. The battalion supported by engineers 
dug four-man fighting holes. Using mechanical 
ditchdiggers, the Marines and engineers trenched 
around the entire position. By 12 January, the 3d Bat- 
talion had erected an observation tower and nearly 
completed the entire project. According to Colonel 
Smith, the A-3 Strong Point "was a model for this sort 
of installation. This is the only one in the AO that had 
a plan to begin with. The others 'just grew' under half 
a dozen different commanders. "'i* 

Although subject to enemy artillery, the 3d Battal- 
ion took very few casualties at the A— 3 Strong Point 
because of NVA shelling. The battalion's Company M 
protecting the American gun positions south of Gio 
Linh, on the other hand, sustained three killed and two 
wounded on 9 January as a result of enemy mortar fire. 
These were more casualties than Lieutenant Colonel 
Needham's remaining companies suffered at the hands 
of the enemy for the entire month." 

The 3d Battalion, 3d Marines did come under fire 
from an unexpected source in January. In his monthly 
chronology, the battalion commander, Lieutenant 
Colonel Needham, reported: "On 13 separate occa- 
sions a total of 54 friendly artillery rounds were 
received in or near the inner perimeter of A— 3 and 
Hill 28 [just to the north of A-3]." On 5 January, for 
example, a white phosphorous shell landed inside the 
3d Battalion's perimeter. The 9th Marines and the 2d 
Battalion, 12th Marines investigated the matter 
which resulted in the relief of the battery commander. 
Six days later, the battalion was on the receiving end 
of six 105 rounds within its wire, followed on the 
13th by 24 rounds. At the same time, a short round 
fell on Hill 28 and killed two Marines and wounded 
six others. Other "friendly fire" incidents occurred on 
15 and 19 January. In its monthly report, the artillery 
battalion, the 2d Battalion, 12th Marines, made no 
mention of the mishaps but remarked, "considerable 
difficulty was experienced with computer hot lines to 
the firing batteries due to the unreliability of radio 
relay. " It then contained the statement that staff visits 



to liaison officers and forward observers "have result- 
ed in better communications on the conduct of fire 
nets." Lieutenant Colonel Needham, a former artillery 
officer himself, remembered several years later that 
"the situation got top-level attention and quick reso- 
lution when I finally told [the 9th Marines] that I 
refused any further support from the 12th Marines, 
and prefer no artillery to what I was getting." In his 
monthly report, he wrote that "corrective action 
appears to have been initiated and a definite improve- 
ment in this regard has been made during the latter 
part of the month. "53** 

Just north of the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Lee R. Bendell's 3d Battalion, 4th 
Marines screened the approaches to the A-3 Strong 
Point. On 26—27 December, Bendell's battalion 
deployed from C-2 and relieved the 1st Battalion, 4th 
Marines on Hill 28, a slight rise about 600 meters 
north of A-3 and just forward of the trace. Bendell 
expanded his battalion's perimeter and moved his 
companies off the top of the hill to new positions 
lower down. Marine engineers bulldozed the growth 
and trees immediately to the west, which provided 
the battalion better observation of the surrounding 
terrain and improved fields of fire. Low rolling hills 
with secondary scrub and thick brush, broken by flat, 
wet rice paddies of 75 to 150 meters, lay to the north 
and east. Wide rice paddies also were interspersed 
with the woods to the west. To the south, the Marines 
had a clear line of sight to the A— 3 Strong Point and 
the trace which marked the battalion's southern 
boundary. The northern boundary extended to the 
southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone, less than 
1,000 meters from Hill 28.5-* 

Close to the DMZ and with elements of the 90th 
NVA Regiine>it believed to be in his sector, Lieutenant 
Colonel Bendell insisted on alertness. He deployed his 
battalion into a three-company perimeter, leaving one 
company in reserve. Bendell used the reserve company 
for night ambushes and listening posts (LP) and as a 
reaction force during the day. According to the battal- 
ion commander, he maintained four to six ambushes 



* Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lehrack, who tommanded a company in 
the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, wrote that the battalion's operations offi- 
cer. Major Raymond F. Findlay, "who designed and supervised the sys- 
tem" deserved the credit for A-3. Lehrack Comments. 



* *Colonel Needham observed in his comments that it was obvious 
to him "that the friendly fire we received was due to basic breakdowns 
at the firing battery/FDC [fire direction center} levels." Needham 
Comments. Lieutenant General Louis Metzger believed that the prob- 
lem was that the main division headquarters was still at Phu Bai in 
early January 1968 and the "need for fire control elements was at Dong 
Ha." He believed the situation was alleviated when the division later 
in the month moved the main headquarters elements to Dong Ha. 
Metzger Comments. 



48 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Photo courtesy of Col Robert C. Needham, USMC (Ret) 
Col Richard B. Smith, second from left, the 9th Marines commander, is seen visiting Strongpoint 
A— 5 in January 1968 and in conversation with LtCol Robert C. Needham. to the right of Col 
Smith, the 5d Battalion. 5d Marines commander, and two of his officers: Maj Rayt/iond F. Find- 
lay. Jr . the 5d Battalion operations officer, is to the left of Col Smith, and Captain Robert R. Beers, 
the commander of Company I. 3d Battalion. 3d Alarines. is to the right ofLtCol Needham. 



and LPs on any particular night. During the day, the 
battalion patrolled constantly, with as many as two 
companies out at a time. 

Lieutenant Colonel Bendell reinforced the infantry 
companies with four 106mm recoilless rifles, two .50- 
caliber machine guns, and six of the battalions 81mm 
mortars. He had left the two remaining mortars back 
in the base camp so that the extra men from the 8 1mm 
mortar platoon could "... hump . . . additional ammo, 
if we had to move out. "55 The 2d Battalion, 12th 
Marines provided direct artillery support and the 1st 
MAW, close air support. 

The "Thundering Third," as the battalion called 
itself, was no stranger to the DMZ war. It had been at 
Con Thien in July through early September 1967 dur- 
ing some of the heaviest fighting and bombardment 
around that strong point. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell, 
who had assumed command that July, remembered that 
the battalion "had actively patrolled the surrounding 
area" that summer and helped establish strong points at 
C-2, C— 3, Cam Lo Bridge, and the "Washout," and also 
deployed a detachment to Gio Linh.''' 



Soon after the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines arrived on 
Hill 28, it again found itself engaged with the enemy. 
On the morning of 30 December, Company M, com- 
manded by Captain Raymond W Kalm, Jr., on patrol 
to the southwest of the battalion perimeter came across 
six empty NVA bunkers facing east, about 2,000 
meters from Hill 28. After destroying the enemy 
bunkers, the company advanced toward the northwest. 
About 1330 that afternoon near a small stream about 
1,500 meters west of Hill 28, the Marines ran into an 
enemy rear guard of about 4 to 10 men. In the result- 
ing exchange of fire. Company M sustained casualties 
of one killed and four wounded. Captain Kalm called 
in artillery and 81mm mortar missions. After the skir- 
mish the Marines found the body of one North Viet- 
namese soldier5^ 

On the following morning, Lieutenant Colonel 
Bendell sent out Captain John L. Prichard's Compa- 
ny I into roughly the same area that Company M had 
met the NVA. Prichard's company moved out from 
Hill 28 in platoon columns. As Bendell explained, 
this formation discouraged the troops from stringing 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



49 




Photo courtesy of Col John D. Carr, USMC (Ret) 
LtCol Lee R. Bendell, the commanding officer of the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, center, poses with 
the company commanders of the "Thundering Third. " From left are Capt John L. Prichard (Cojti- 
pany I), Capt John D. Carr (Company L), Bendell. Capt Raymond W. Kalm,Jr (Company M), 
and Capt Edward 0. Leroy (Company K) 



out and permitted the company commander "to 
deploy fire power immediately to the fiont." Fol- 
lowing a trail near the destroyed village of Xuan Hai 
where the DMZ boundary made a northward hump 
on the map, 1,800 meters northwest of Hill 28, 
Prichard's point, Staff Sergeant C. L. Colley, spotted 
four to five North Vietnamese troops to his front. 
The company commander ordered two platoons for- 
ward to a slight rise in the ground and brought his 
third platoon in behind the CP (command post) 
group to protect the rear. In the initial exchange, the 
North Vietnamese had the advantage, but the 
Marine company soon had the upper hand. Moving 
rapidly back and forth across the Marine line, 
Prichard and his officers and NCOs rallied their 
troops and "India Company rather shortly gained 
fire superiority."""* 

At that point, around noon, the Marines observed 
a second group of NVA maneuvering to reinforce the 



first. The company brought the reinforcements under 
60mm mortar and small-arms fire and forced the 
enemy to lie low. A half-hour later, the Marines, 
themselves, came under heavy enemy 82mm-mortar 
bombardment from their right flank, generally to the 
northeast. By this time, it was apparent that the 
enemy was in "strong bunkered positions all across 
the front and right front of India Company."^'' 

Despite marginal flying conditions because of 500- 
to 1,000-feet cloud ceilings and reduced visibility, an 
aerial observer (AO) arrived over the scene. Giving his 
call sign "Smitty Tango," the AO made radio contact 
with Prichard and adjusted the company's 60mm 
counter-mortar fire. The Marine mortars knocked out 
one of the enemy tubes and "caused the others to cease 
fire." With this success to his credit, the AO pulled ofl^ 
and the company called in an artillery mission, hitting 
the enemy positions with mixed caliber rounds. The 
Marine shelling "threw [NVA] bodies in the air iis 



50 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



India {Company 1} walked 155mm [fire] towards 
friendly lines. "^o 

The Marine company sustained four wounded and 
had begun to take fire firom its right front. One of the 
wounded was one of the company's snipers who had 
moved too far forward and lay exposed to enemy fire. 
A corpsman attempted to rescue the man, but was hit 
himself and forced to turn back. With his gunnery 
sergeant laying down a base of fire, Captain Prichard 
rushed forward and carried back the seriously wound- 
ed Marine to the company positions. A Marine heli- 
copter from HMM— 163, in a medical evacuation 
(MedEvac) mission, flew the wounded out from an 
improvised landing zone just to the company's rear in 
a defilade area."' 

Although the enemy attempted to jam the Marine 
radio net, 'Smitty Tango " remained in communication 
with Captain Prichard and Second Lieutenant Albert B. 
Doyle, the company's attached forward artillery observ- 
er. At 1 350, the AO checked the artillery fire and called 
in two Marine "Huey" (Bell UH-IE helicopter) gun- 
ships from Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6 
that had covered the landing of the evacuation heli- 
copter. The gunships made several passes at the enemy 
mortar positions in open bomb craters near the Marine 
positions. When the air arrived, several NVA soldiers 
"actually [were] standing up in their holes, only a 100 
to 150 meters away from India Company and firing 
both at the AO and the aircraft as they conducted 
strikes upon them." As the lead Huey, piloted by Major 
Curtis D. McRaney, came in on its first run, its guns 
jammed. According to McRaney's copilot. Major 
David L. Steele, "one of the NVA must have noticed 
this because he stepped out of his hole and began firing 
at us with his automatic weapon on our next pass." This 
was a mistake. As Steele observed, "on successive pass- 
es ... we were able to cover the crater area with rockets 
and machine gun fire, killing most of the enemy." The 
AO reported that he saw the North Vietnamese "drag- 
ging eight bodies into a tunnel. "'- 

After the air strikes, Lieutenant Colonel Bendell, 
who had been monitoring the radio traffic, decided to 
pull India Company back to Hill 28. By this time, 
the North Vietnamese had brought up further rein- 
forcements and Bendell believed, "There was no need 
to assault the [NVA] position." According to Ben- 
dell, Marine supporting arms, both artillery and gun- 
ships, would have "a real desired effect upon the 
enemy . . . ."'^' 

As Company I broke contact and started to with- 
draw, the troops saw a large NVA unit, apparently 



dressed in Marine uniforms,' closing in. The Huey 
gunships then laid down extensive covering fire and 
then the artillery took over. By 1530, the company had 
returned to Hill 28. Colonel Smith, the 9th Marines 
commander, personally greeted "the men of the Hun- 
gry I" with a deserved "well done." The company, 
while sustaining casualties of only four wounded, had 
accounted tor 27 enemy dead, not including the eight 
NVA taken out by the helicopters, or the unknown 
number of enemy killed by the artillery. Lieutenant 
Colonel Bendell recommended Captain Prichard for 
the Navy Cross; he received the Silver Star.^^ 

For the next few days, the 3d Battalion, 4th 
Marines had a relatively uneventflil time in their for- 
ward position. In the early morning hours of 6 Janu- 
ary, however, a listening post heard movement just 
outside the battalion's perimeter. The Marines opened 
fire with both small arms and M79 grenade launchers. 
One of the defenders saw something fall, but an 
attempt to check the area drew enemy fire. In daylight 
hours, the Marines found no evidence of any enemy 
bodies. It was apparent to the battalion, however, that 
its quiet period was over.<55 

On the following day, 7 January, the Marines on 
Hill 28 began to take sniper rounds from an enemy- 
held ridgeline about 800 meters to their front and sit- 
uated just to the south of the DMZ boundary. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Bendell ordered Captain John D. Carr, 
the commanding officer of Company L, to flush out 
the sniper who had already wounded one Marine. Carr 
sent out that morning two six-man teams from his 1st 
Platoon. The two teams approached the enemy-held 
ridge from both flanks and then linked up into a 
squad-size patrol. As the squad moved over the ridge- 
line, enemy AK-47s and machine guns opened up. 
Positioned in well-entrenched defenses dug out of the 
numerous American-made bomb craters pocketing the 
side of the ridge, the NVA gunners killed one Marine 
and wounded another. Unable to advance or withdraw, 
the Marines took what cover they could and returned 
the fire. In radio contact with the squad and aware of 
its plight, Captain Carr ordered the remainder of the 
1st Platoon to reinforce the entrapped Marines. 



* Major Gary E. Todd, a former 5d Marine Division intelligence 
officer, wrote that he doubted that the NVA were dressed in Marine 
uniforms: "there were several instances when Marines mistook NVA 
for other Marines, due to the similarity of uniforms. They [the NVA] 
wore utilities of almost the identical color to ours, and often wore 
Russian-style steel helmets, frequently with a camouflage net .... We, 
of course, had cloth camouflage covers on our helmets. . . . From a dis- 
tance . . . the helmets were hard ro distinguish." Todd Comments. 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



51 



Although the platoon reached the embattled squad 
about 1530 that afternoon, it too found itself in an 
untenable position. The North Vietnamese had good 
clear fields of fire and also had brought up reinforce- 
ments. Employing M79 grenade launchers, hand 
grenades, and rifles, the 1st Platoon fought off the 
NVA and called for further assistance.66 

Captain Carr then led the rest of Company L to the 
base of the ridge and flanked the enemy positions. 
Although unable to link up with its 1st Platoon on 
the forward slope, the company laid down a base of 
fire and Carr called in artillery to prevent the enemy 
from making any further reinforcements. Despite a 
slight drizzle and a low-lying cloud cover, the compa- 
ny commander made radio contact with an aerial 
observer who was able to adjust the supporting arms 
including the company's 60mm mortars. With the 
increased fire support, the 1st Platoon managed to 
hold out but with evening fast approaching the situa- 
tion remained serious. ^^ 

At this point, Lieutenant Colonel Bendell ordered 
Captain Carr to have the 1st Platoon "to break contact 
and pull back across the ridgeline." To cover the pla- 
toon's withdrawal, the aerial observer called in air 
strikes and artillery within 100 meters of the Marines. 
The battalion commander also deployed two platoons 
of Company K to high ground about 1 ,000 meters 
west of Company L. Despite these protective measures, 
the enemy took a heavy toll of the Marines of the 1st 
Platoon as they disengaged and rejoined the rest of the 
company. Since its first elements made contact with 
the enemy. Company L sustained casualties of 6 dead 
and 36 wounded, 28 of whom required evacuation. 
Captain Carr asked for a MedEvac helicopter to take 
out the worst of the wounded.^s 

As the Marines waited, a CH-^6D Boeing Vertol 
"Sea Knight" helicopter from Marine Medium Heli- 
copter Squadron 164 (HMM-164), piloted by Cap- 
tain Richard G. Sousa, took off from Phu Bai to carry 
out the evacuation mission. Because of the rain and 
heavy winds, Sousa flew low to the ground. As the 
helicopter approached the improvised landing zone, 
the Company L Marines fired illumination flares to 
guide the pilot "out of the darkness." Tracers from 
NVA machine guns made the situation literally 
"touch and go. " After the aircraft landed, the enlisted 
crewmen immediately jumped out and helped the 
infantry load their casualties on board. The helicopter 
then lifted off, still under fire and unable to use its 
M60 machine guns because the North Vietnamese 
were too close to the Marine company.® 



With the safe evacuation of most of its wounded 
and under cover of supporting arms. Company L 
made its way to Company K's forward positions with- 
out taking any further casualties. Lieutenant Colonel 
Bendell explained that he had placed Company K's 
two platoons on the high ground for psychological 
reasons as much as for tactical: "If you can pass 
through friendly lines when you are half-way back, it's 
a big morale boost to the troops, and also covers the 
rear of the force returning to the battalion perimeter." 
On the whole, Bendell praised Carr's handling of a 
difficult situation: "We committed early, the compa- 
ny commander made good time up there, and was 
able effectively to employ his supporting arms." Oth- 
erwise, the battalion commander believed "this one 
platoon would have been cut off and destroyed." As it 
was, in the confiasion of the evacuation of the dead and 
wounded, the Marine company left a body of a 1st 
Platoon Marine on the ridgeline.""' 

On the following day. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell 
sent Company L out to recover the missing Marine. 
Bendell ordered Captain Carr to delay the mission 
until noon because of the continuing rain and low ceil- 
ing. The battalion commander wanted an aerial 
observer overhead to cover the Marine company. As 
Company L advanced toward its previous day's posi- 
tion, the AO spotted the body of the Marine and about 
12 NVA in the vicinity. The North Vietnamese had 
dragged the dead man into the DMZ. Believing "that 
the body was being used as a bait for a trap," Bendell 
recalled the Marine company to Hill 28 and then sat- 
urated the area with artillery and air^i 

Lieutenant Colonel Bendell then decided upon a 
new tactic. He and his staff worked out plans for a 
three-company operation, supported by air and 
artillery, into the Demilitarized Zone to bring back the 
body. Instead of approaching the objective straight on, 
the battalion would leave one company in blocking 
positions on high ground northwest of Hill 28, south 
of the DMZ. The other two companies were first to 
move northeast, then wheel due north into the DMZ, 
and then advance in a southwesterly direction, coming 
upon the enemy from the rear and the flanks."- 

After a preliminary artiller}' bombardment and 
ground-controlled TPQ radar air strikes all along the 
eastern DMZ front so as not to give away the route of 
march, at 0500 on 11 January, the battalion moved 
out as Lieutenant Colonel Bendell remembered, "with 
strict radio silence.""' As planned, Captain Carr's 
Company L occupied the ridgeline to the northwest. 
Under the cover of darkness and foy, tlie two attack 



52 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



companies, Companies K and M, with Company K in 
tine lead, and Bendell's command group sandwiched 
between the two companies, advanced in a northeast- 
etly ditection towatd the DMZ. After about 1500 
meters, the battalion veered north and penetrated 500 
meters into the southern half of the Demilitarized 
Zone. Once in the DMZ, according to plan, the two 
companies swung in a southwesterly direction along 
parallel paths, separated by a fallow rice paddy. Com- 
pany M, with the battalion command group, 
remained still somewhat behind Company K, pro- 
tecting both the battalion rear and left flank. With 
the lifting of the morning haze about 0900, the first 
of a trio of 3d Marine Division aerial observers arrived 
overhead. At about the same time. Captain Edward 
O. Leroy's Company K came across the first of several 
NVA bunkers near the abandoned and largely 
destroyed village of An Xa. Employing both artillery 
and air support, the company easily overcame scat- 
tered enemy resistance. At one point. Captain Kalm, 
the Company M commander, saw what appeared to 
be, at first blush, three bushes, but turned out to be 
well-camouflaged NVA soldiers, maneuvering to the 
rear of his company column. He directed machine 
gun fire in that direction "and then started calling 
artillery fire and the three bushes were seen to disap- 
pear over the hill to our rear.""' 

For the next three hours, the two Marine compa- 
nies remained in the DMZ. In and around An Xa, 
Company K blew up some 25 bunkers and captured 
about 10 weapons including one machine gun, a rock- 
et-propelled grenade launcher (RPG), and several 
AK— 47s and other rifles. The Marines also confiscat- 
ed or destroyed cooking utensils, pieces of uniform 
and equipment, food, and documents that identified 
the North Vietnamese unit in the sector as the 2d 
Company, 1th Battalion, 90th NVA Regiment. In their 
haste, the NVA troops left cooked rice still in the pot 
and still warm. Further to the south. Company M 
protected Company K's exposed southern flank and 
recovered without incident the body of the missing 
Marine from Company L. By afternoon on the 11th, 
both companies had passed through Company L's 
blocking positions and returned to the battalion CP 
on Hill 28. The Marines sustained only two casualties, 
both wounded, and only one of whom had to be evac- 
uated. According to Marine accounts, they killed at 
least 1 5 NVA and probably inflicted more casualties 
with artillery and air.^' 

According to Lieutenant Colonel Bendell, by 
"achieving surprise . . . moving during darkness," he 



and his operations officer, Major Richard K. Young, 
believed the sweep of the southern DMZ was a suc- 
cessful demonstration of coordination between the 
infantry on the ground and supporting arms. On two 
occasions, the aerial observers called in air strikes on 
NVA troops in the open attempting to flank the 
Marine companies. Young, who stayed behind at the 
battalion combat operations center (COC) on Hill 28, 
later stated: ". . . we were able to have artillery on 30 
seconds before air got there and then we could run air 
strikes and then turn on the artillery . . . {we} had 
some type of fire on the enemy almost the entire dura- 
tion of the operation." The operations officer remem- 
bered: "Several times when artillery wasn't getting 
there fast enough, the company commander would 
jump on the battalion tac [tactical radio net] and get 
in touch with myself back at the COC." Young would 
then "get 81mm fire out there to fill the void in 
artillery or get with my artillery liaison officer or my 
forward air controller and get this continuous fire 
while the troops were advancing along the bunker 
complex." Shortly after the return of the battalion, 
Lieutenant Colonel Bendell briefed the 3d Marine 
Division staff and the Commandant of the Marine 
Corps, General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., who was on 
a visit to Vietnam, at the Dong Ha headquarters on 
the successful completion of the operation.^^ 

With the termination of the DMZ sweep, the 
sojourn of the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines on Hill 28 
was about over. The completion of the A-3 Strong 
Point reduced the need for a forward battalion to 
protect the approaches. On 12 January, Bendell's 
battalion began its move to a new position along the 
trace near the abandoned village of An Phu and clos- 
er to Con Thien.* For the 9th Marines in Operation 
Kentucky, the strongpoint system was about as com- 
plete as it was ever going to be. Still, as Lieutenant 
Colonel Bendell several years later observed: "there 
was evidence of an NVA build up throughout the 
DMZ sector. "77 

Operation Lancaster and 
Heavy Fighting in Mid-January 

By mid-January, the North Vietnamese began to 
intensify their efforts to cut Route 9 especially along 



* Lieutenant Colonel Lehrack who was with the 3d Battalion, 3d 
Marines at this time noted that even with the reduced need for a for- 
ward battalion and after the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines departed Hill 
28, his battalion placed two companies on the hill and kept them there 
for several months. Lehrack Comments. 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



53 




Top photo courtesy ot Col Gorton C. Cook, USMC (Ret) and bottom is from the 12th Mar ComdC, Dec68. 
Route 9 is seen looking south from a Marine outpost located on the northern end of the Rockpile, top. 
and an aerial photograph shows the Marine base at Ca Lu, bottom. In January 1968, Ca Lu for 
the Marines was the western terminus of Route 9 since the road was cut between there and the Marine 
base at Khe Sanh. LtCol Gorton C. Cook's 5d Battalion. 9th Marines manned both the Rockpile 
and Ca Lu posts. 




54 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



the tenuous supply route to Ca Lu. Since November 
1967, Colonel Joseph E. Lo Prate's 3d Marines had 
conducted Operation Lancaster protecting the west- 
ern flank of the 9th Marines in Kentucky. The Lan- 
caster area of operations contained the key Marine 
bases of Camp Carroll, an important artillery posi- 
tion, the Rockpile, and Ca Lu. The Rockpile, a 700- 
foot sheer cliff outcropping, dominated the nearby 
terrain. Perched on its top. Marine observers had a 
clear view of the most likely approaches into the 
Cam Lo River Valley and of Route 9, the two most 
strategic east-west arteries in the DMZ sector. About 
12,000 meters below the Rockpile and part of the 
Dyemarker system was Ca Lu, in effect the southern 
terminal of Route 9 since the North Vietnamese had 
effectively cut the road between Ca Lu and Khe Sanh, 
about 20,000 meters to the west. An obvious way sta- 
tion for any relief effort of Khe Sanh, Ca Lu, at the 
junction of the Quang Tri River and Route 9, also 
provided the Marines an outpost to warn of enemy 
infiltration into the Lancaster area from the west, 
southwest, and from the Ba Long Valley to the south- 
east. Similar to much of the terrain in the DMZ area, 
the Lancaster area of operations consisted of rolling 
hills rising into jungle-covered mountains of 
700—800 feet with tree canopies reaching up to 
heights of 20 to 60 feet. Fifteen-foot elephant grass 
and dense brush vegetation restricted movement even 
in the relatively low regions. 

Like Colonel Smith and the 9th Marines, Colonel 
Lo Prete was tied to his base areas. With only two 
infantry battalions, and one of those battalions having 
only two companies, the 3d Marines commander had 
to make do with limited resources and manpower. Lo 
Prete maintained his command post at Camp Carroll 
which was also the home for Lieutenant Colonel 
William M. Cryan's 2d Battalion, 9th Marines. Cryan 
with only his Companies E and H under his opera- 
tional control kept Company H at Carroll and posi- 
tioned Company E about 3,000 meters southeast of 
Camp Carroll where it protected a main supply route. 
Lo Prete assigned his other battalion. Lieutenant 
Colonel Gorton C. Cook's 3d Battalion, 9th Marines, 
the responsibility for the defense of both Ca Lu and the 
Rockpile area. Cook and three of his companies 
remained in the Thon Son Lam sector just below the 
Rockpile while he placed his Company L at Ca Lu. An 
article in the battalion newsletter at the time noted 
that the sector was "pretty quiet now except for some 
sporadic ambushes between here and our company- 
sized outpost at Ca Lu."'« 



Artillery and tanks reinforced the infantry in Lan- 
caster. Three 105mm howitzer batteries and one 
155mm howitzer battery all under the 1st Battalion, 
12 th Marines at Carroll provided direct support to the 
infantry battalions. An ad hoc battery of mixed caliber 
guns. Battery W, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, was 
with Company L at Ca Lu. Company B, 3d Tank Bat- 
talion maintained two platoons of M48 medium gun 
tanks and one heavy section of M67A2 flame tanks at 
Carroll. For the most part, the tanks bolstered the 
defenses at Camp Carroll and fiirnished protection for 
road convoys to Ca Lu. An attached U.S. Army 
artillery unit, Battery C, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery 
(Automatic Weapons, Self Propelled) also augmented 
the Marine fire power. The Army M42s or "dusters" 
armed with twin 40mm antiaircraft guns employed as 
machine guns gave added protection to Marine con- 
voys and to the Marine fixed defenses.^' 

The Marines worried most about their relatively 
exposed position at Ca Lu. There, the isolated garrison 
numbered about 625 Army, Navy, and Marine person- 
nel including the Marine infantry company. Navy 
Seabees and Marine engineers had nearly completed 
the permanent facilities required for the Dyemarker 
project. While not directly attacking the Marine out- 
post, the North Vietnamese had mined Route 9 occa- 
sionally in December and ambushed one Marine con- 
voy on a return trip from Ca Lu to the Rockpile. 
Despite a relative lull during the first two weeks of 
January, Marine intelligence indicated that North 
Vietnamese forces were on the move.'^" 

A division "Stingray" reconnaissance team operat- 
ing in the general area of the Ca Lu base soon con- 
firmed the presence of enemy troops in the general 
area.' On 12 January, about 1415 in the afternoon. 
Reconnaissance Team 2C3, using the codename "Blue 
Plate" and operating in the mountains about 4,000 
meters southwest of Ca Lu below the Quang Tri 
River, radioed back that it was being followed by five 
NVA "wearing black pjs and carrying automatic 
weapons." The "Blue Plate" Marines fired upon the 
enemy but missed. For a time all was quiet and the 
Marines continued upon their way. About two hours 
later, the Marines came back on the air to report that 
they were surrounded by about 30 North Vietnamese 
troops armed with AK— 47s. Marine gunships 
appeared overhead and provided covering fire while 



* Stingray patrols usually consisted of a small Marine reconnais- 
sance unit, usually squad-size, which called artillery and air on targets 
of opportunity. 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



55 



another helicopter extracted the Marine team. The 
reconnaissance Marines sustained only one casualty, 
one wounded man.^i 

The incident on the 12 th was only a harbinger of 
what was to come. On the following day, the North 
Vietnamese sprang an ambush on an engineer convoy 
bringing Dyemarker supplies and equipment to Ca 
Lu. Under an overcast sky and a slight drizzle, about 
1120 on the morning of the 13th, the 20-vehicle 
convoy departed the Rockpile area. Marine artillery 
had already fired 15-minute preparation fires at sus- 
pected ambush sites. With two tanks in the lead, the 
convoy consisted of 10 six by six trucks interspersed 
with two more tanks in the center of the column, four 
"low boy" tractor trailers, and two of the Army 
"dusters" bringing up the rear. The vehicles carried 
about 200 men including engineers, drivers, the 
M42 crews, support personnel, and Company I, 3d 
Battalion, 9th Marines.^^ 

About 1150, approximately 3,000 meters above 
the Ca Lu, enemiy gunners took the convoy under fire 
with rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, and 
mortars. At the same time, the NVA ambushers deto- 
nated a command mine which set two trucks on fire, 
one a "low boy" and the other carrying 81mm mortar 
ammunition. The truck with the mortars exploded 
which forced the rear section of the convoy to come to 
a complete halt. The infantry from Company I hastily 
dismounted from their trucks to engage the enemy, 
only for many of the troops to trigger several "surprise 
firing devices ' and mines skillfully hidden along both 
sides of the road. 

Lieutenant Colonel Cook recalled several years later 
that before the convoy had started out he and his 
sergeant major had moved to an outpost on a hill top 
just west of Route 9. From there, he remained in radio 
contact with both his command post and the convoy 
and could observe the vehicles as they moved south 
toward Ca Lu. When he saw the convoy stopped after 
the initial burst of fire, he directed "the lead element 
to continue on to Ca Lu and return with reinforce- 
ments." He then joined the stalled troops. According 
to Cook, from the site of the ambush, he "called and 
directed artillery fire through his COC [Combat Oper- 
ations Center] on enemy escape and reinforcing routes 
both east and west of Route 9-" 

In the meantime. Company L, 3d Battalion, 9th 
Marines boarded at Ca Lu the lead trucks to relieve the 
embattled column. At the ambush site, about 1 2 1 5, an 
aerial observer using the call sign "American Beauty" 
arrived overhead to assist in calling in supporting fires. 



The leaden skies precluded the use of Marine fixed- 
wing jets, but two helicopter gunships strafed the 
enemy firing positions. Marine artillery fired over 700 
rounds including 54 155mm howitzer shells in sup- 
port of the convoy after the initial contact. 

With the arrival of Company L and the continuing 
artillery bombardment, the Marines disengaged under 
occasional enemy sniper fire and completed the trip to 
Ca Lu, arriving there about 1510. The convoy made 
the return trip to the Rockpile area late that afternoon 
without incident. The costs, however, had been high. 
American dead and wounded totaled 19 killed and 
over 70 wounded. Most of the casualties were sus- 
tained by Company I in the first moments of the 
ambush. The Marines accounted for 10 enemy dead 
and captured one prisoner Marine intelligence officers 
estimated that a North Vietnamese company partici- 
pated in the attack.* 

For a time after the ambush, the 3d Marines' 
attention shifted once more to the north and east in 
that area between Camp Carroll and the Rockpile 
above Route 9- Shortly after 0800 on the morning of 
16 January, a 3d Reconnaissance Battalion "Stingray" 
team there found itself surrounded by about 40 
North Vietnamese on high ground about 2,000 
meters north of the Cam Lo River. According to the 
team, the enemy were obviously NVA regulars, wear- 
ing green utilities and helmets impressed with a yel- 
low lightning bolt design, and armed with AK-47 
rifles and two machine guns. The 3d Marines imme- 
diately sent a reaction platoon from Company H, 2d 
Battalion, 9th Marines to assist the encircled team. 
Lifted into a helicopter landing zone about a 1,000 
meters east of the reconnaissance team, the 2d Bat- 
talion reaction platoon came under machine gun fire. 
The platoon returned the fire and called in air and 
artillery. After the artillery and air strike silenced the 
enemy guns, the infantry platoon joined up with the 
reconnaissance team. By this time, the North Viet- 
namese troops had disappeared, leaving six dead 
behind. At 1340 that afternoon. Marine helicopters 



*Colonel Robert C. Needham commented that this ambush was 
very similar to one that 3/3 had run into in the same area in August and 
September 1967. Needham Comments. A survivor of the ambush who 
visited Vietnam in 1994 wrote in a veteran's newsletter that on the road 
to Ca Lu he reached "the 13 January 1968 ambush site .... In my 
mind's eye I could see the first cloud of black smoke [when] the ambush 
was sprung, and I smelled the odor ot gunpowder in the air." Before 
leaving, he and his companion planted some flowers in memory of the 
men killed there. Phil Quinones, "Vietnam — Tour '94'," Comirin; Vrel- 
lunii, Oct 1994, v. 4, No. 1, pp. 3—4. End to Todd Comments. 



56 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



extracted both groups of Marines to Camp Carroll. 
The units sustained one Navy corpsman killed and 
four Marines wounded. It was obvious that the 
enemy was becoming much more aggressive all along 
Route 9 and the DMZ in general.'-"^ 

Afiier a few brief quiet days, the DMZ war in the 
western Kentucky sector also flared up. After leaving 
Hill 28 and uncovering an enemy base area, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Bendell's 3d Battalion, 4th Marines 
took up its new positions at An Dinh between A— 3 
and Con Thien to investigate recent probes at the lat- 
ter base. The battalion immediately began patrolling 
its area of operations. On the 17th, Bendell planned to 
send out a two-company patrol the next morning near 
an abandoned hamlet just north of the trace about two 
miles northeast of Con Thien. Company M was to be 
the blocking force while Company L was to be the 
sweeping force.*^' 

The evening of the 17th, Captain John D. Carr, the 
Company L commander, held a meeting of his platoon 
commanders. Second Lieutenant Kenneth L. Christy, 
who headed the 3d Platoon, remembered that Carr 
briefed them on the next day's planned patrol. Accord- 
ing to Christy, he noticed that the route of advance 
"took us through a bombed out ville that we all 
referred to as the 'Meat Market'," because it was "Char- 
lies' area — ^and almost everytime we went there either 
us or them, somebody got hammered." Christy's pla- 
toon had run a patrol in that area very recently, but 
there had been "no sign of Charlie or Charlie decided 
not to engage." Captain Carr assigned the point posi- 
tion to his 1st Platoon. Lieutenant Christy argued ("to 
the degree that a second lieutenant argues with a cap- 
tain") that his platoon knew the area and should have 
the point. Captain Carr, however, stated that the 3d 
Platoon needed a break and he wanted to give one of 
the other platoons the point experience.**' 

As planned, with the 1st Platoon on point, fol- 
lowed by the 2d Platoon with the command group, 
and the 3d Platoon bringing up the rear. Company L 
departed the battalion lines at An Dien in pre-dawn 
darkness. Suddenly the NVA about 0945 from well- 
camouflaged bunkers and spider holes near the "Meat 
Market" sprang their ambush on the Marine compa- 
ny. The 1st Platoon on the point engaged what it 
thought was a NVA platoon only to find itself divid- 
ed into separate groups, with the forward element cut 
off from the rest of the company. Captain Carr 
brought up the 2d Platoon and his command group 
and joined the rear element of the 1st Platoon, in a 
large B-52 bomb crater. **f' 



In the company rear. Lieutenant Christy recalled 
that when the ambush occurred, "it sounded like a few 
sporadic gun shots and then all hell broke loose." The 
men of his platoon hit the ground "facing outward as 
we usually did. " Christy took cover in a 105mm shell 
crater with his platoon sergeant and radio man. At that 
point. Captain Carr ordered the 3d Platoon comman- 
der to join him, about 180 meters to the platoon's 
front. Under heavy automatic fire, the 3d Platoon 
joined Carr in a series of rushes taking shelter in shell 
and bomb craters along the way. Miraculously, the pla- 
toon had made the dash without sustaining any casu- 
alties. According to Christy, "we closed off the back- 
side of what was the company perimeter. "»^ 

As Company L more or less consolidated its posi- 
tion, the North Vietnamese continued to direct auto- 
matic weapons fire from all sides, mortars, and even 
large caliber artillery upon the embattled Marines. 
More urgently, the enemy was using the cutofi^ squad- 
size remnant of the 1st Platoon, about 100 meters in 
front of the rest of the company, as "bait" in a "NVA 
killing zone." Lieutenant Christy remembered Captain 
Carr told him that there were "dead and wounded up 
front and needed 3d Plat {platoon] to go up there and 
collect them up so we could get the wounded and dead 
med-evaced and the hell out of the area."**** 

By this time, the North Vietnamese fires had some- 
what diminished. Captain Carr and a forward artillery 
observer who was with the cutoff troops. Sergeant 
Michael J. Madden, called in supporting U.S. artillery. 
Sergeant Madden also made radio contact with an air 
observer in a Huey who brought in helicopter gun- 
ships to keep the enemy at bay. Under this protective 
cover. Lieutenant Christy took one of his squads and 
joined by Captain Carr reached the 1st Platoon group. 
Christy then deployed his men and crawled forward to 
another crater where Sergeant Madden, although 
wounded, was still calling in artillery strikes. There 
were four other wounded men with Madden. Christy 
remembered Captain Carr covering him with a shot- 
gun while he went forward again to reach some Marine 
bodies, including that of the 1st Platoon commander, 
some 50 meters to the front. With the supporting 
artillery fires, the 3d Platoon squad brought back the 
wounded and dead of the 1st Platoon. According to 
Lieutenant Christy, he admonished some of his men for 
being too gentle and that the bodies were not going to 
be hurt: "Lets get these people policed up and get out 
of here before Charlie starts firing us up again. "'*9 

In the meanwhile, upon hearing of the Company L 
predicament. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell, the battal- 



THE WAR IN THE EASTERN DMZ IN EARLY AND MID-JANUARY 



57 



ion commander, replaced Company M with another 
unit in the blocking position and then with a skeleton 
command group accompanied Company M to relieve 
Company L. After the linkup, the two companies over- 
ran at least three enemy mortar positions and several 
machine guns and individual fighting holes. With 
continuing helicopter gunship support and covering 
artillery, Marine helicopters evacuated the most seri- 
ously wounded. The two companies then "crossed the 
trace in good order," late that afternoon carrying their 
remaining casualties. In the action, the two companies 
sustained casualties of 9 dead and 22 wounded includ- 
ing Captain Carr who was evacuated by helicopter 
According to the 9th Marines, the enemy sustained 
over 100 casualties.?"* 

By 20 January, a new phase of the war was about 
to begin. Colonel Lo Prete and his 3d Marines staff 
were about to close out the Lancaster operation and 



*For this action on the 18th, Captain John Carr, the Company L 
Commander, was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart; Captain 
Raymond W. Kalm, Jr., the Company M commander, received the 
Bronze Star with V; Sergeant Michael J. Madden also received the 
Bronze Star with V; and one of the helicopter pilots received the Dis- 
tinguished Flying Cross. On 25 March 1994 at Camp Lejeune, North 
Carolina, Colonel Kenneth L. Christy, Jr., was awarded the Navy 
Cross for his heroism on 18 January 1968, more than 26 years after 
the event. Sergeant Madden, who credited Christy for saving his life 
and the others with him, had submitted an award recommendation. 
Somehow the paperwork got lost and Madden in 1988 was surprised 
to learn that Christy had not received any medal tor his actions that 
day. Madden then launched a one-man successful campaign to rectify 
the situation. The Navy Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor 
in awards for heroism in the Marine Corps. Bendell Comments; Col 
Kenneth L. Christy, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 8Dec94 (Viet- 
nam Comment File); Colonel Kenneth L. Christy, Jr., Biographical 
File, Reference Sec, MCHC. 



take over the Osceola area in the Quang Tri sector 
from the 1st Marines. The 1st Marines in turn was to 
relieve the 4th Marines in the Camp Evans sector. 
Colonel William Dick, the 4th Marines commander, 
was then to assume control of the units in Lancaster. 
For the most part, this phase of Operation Checkers 
was a case of regimental musical chairs and had little 
effect on the battalions in the various sectors. Both 
the 3d Battalion, 9th Marines and the two companies 
of the 2d Battalion, 9th Marines were to remain in 
Lancaster, now called Operation Lancaster II. 

According to the usual body-count measurements 
of the war, the 3d Marines in Operation Lancaster I 
accounted for 46 enemy dead at a cost of 22 Marines 
killed and 140 wounded. In comparison, during the 
same period, the 9th Marines in Operation Ken- 
tucky sustained 90 dead and over 800 wounded 
while killing nearly 700 of the enemy. Still the indi- 
cations were that the North Vietnamese were raising 
the ante throughout the DMZ sector including Khe 
Sanh. Near the coast, on 20 January, enemy gunners 
fired at two Navy craft on the Cua Viet River forc- 
ing the Naval Support Activity, Cua Viet temporar- 
ily to close that important waterway, the main sup- 
ply channel to the Marine base at Dong Ha. At the 
same time, the 3d Marines observed that a large 
enemy force, probably the 29th NVA Regiment had 
moved into the area north of the Quang Tri River 
and west of Ca Lu. Just as significant, another regi- 
ment had replaced the 90tb NVA Regiment in the 
Lancaster northern area of operations. The 90 tb NVA 
had then shifted to the southwest and had possibly 
entered the "Scotland" or Khe Sanh area of opera- 
tions. Perhaps the big enemy offensive in the north 
was about to begin.'" 



CHAPTER 4 

Khe Sanh: Building Up 

The Battlefield — The Early Days — Protecting the Investment — The Isolation of Khe Sanh 
The Decision to Hold — The Stage is Set — Sortie to Hill 881 North — The Enemy Plan Unfolds 



The Battlefield 

The village of Khe Sanh, composed of nine ham- 
lets and also the capital of Huong Hoa District, once 
sat astride National Route 9 in the extreme north- 
western corner of South Vietnam. According to a 
census, 10,195 civilians lived in the district, mostly 
clustered within four miles of the village.' Khe Sanh 
controlled road movement from nearby Laos into 
northern Quang Tri Province and was the terminus 
of a number of trail networks which crossed the 
Laotian border further to the north and wound their 
way through the valleys and along the rivers to 
intersect the highway in the vicinity of the village. 
National Route 9 was actually little more than a 
wide trail in places, yet it was a key feature of the 
area because it provided a means of movement 
between nearby Laos and the coastal region. 
Between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha, Route 9 ran for 
63 kilometers, crossing 36 crumbling old bridges 
along the way. Most of them, relics of the French 
colonial era, could be bypassed and often were, due 
to their deteriorated condition.' 

The terrain of the Huong Hoa District is charac- 
terized by steep, jungle-covered mountains separated 
by plunging valleys. Mountain peaks tower over the 
hamlets along Route 9, rising from 200 meters to 
600 meters above the elevation of the highway. 
Streams flow through many of the valleys, emptying 
into one of two rivers. The Song Rao Quan drains the 
region to the north, flowing southeast to join other 
rivers which continue to the sea. West of Khe Sanh, 
the Xe Pon, or Tchepone, flows east across the Laot- 
ian panhandle to a point 1 5 kilometers from the vil- 
lage, where it turns south forming a part of the inter- 
national border between South Vietnam and Laos. 



There are two types of rain forest in the area. The 
primary growth is found at higher elevations where 
some trees reach 90 feet in height, forming a canopy 
beneath which other trees, some up to 60 feet high, 
form a second canopy. The dense canopies reduce the 
light at ground level to the point that growth there 
is limited to seedlings, flowers, and climbing plants. 
Because of the sparse ground cover, the jungle can 
be penetrated on foot with little difficulty.- 

The secondary rain forest is located at lower eleva- 
tions where the ground has first been cleared, then 
later left for the jungle to reclaim. Here, the trees are 
smaller, allowing more light to penetrate to ground 
level. The resulting thick growth of bamboo, ele- 
phant grass, and climbing plants limits foot travel 
considerably.^ 

The weather in the region varies through the course 
of a year. It is warm in the summer, although cooler 
than at the lower elevations near the coast, while in 
the winter, it is sometimes oppressively cold and 
damp. Annual rainfall exceeding 80 inches, much of it 
occurring during the winter monsoon, feeds the rain 
forests and contributes to the discomfort caused by the 
cold temperatures. A thick, milk-colored fog known 
in Indochina as crachin** occurs frequently in the win- 
ter months, reducing visibility considerably. 

During the war, a Montagnard tribe, the Bru, lived 
near Khe Sanh, although the people in the village 



* Former Navy chaplain Ray W. Stubbe, a noted authority on Khe 
Sanh and its environs, observed that this census did not include the 
approximately 12,000 Montagnard tribesmen who lived in "some half 
dozen villes" in the immediate Khe Sanh area. LCdr Ray W. Stubbe, 
ChC, USN, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 230ct94 (Vietnam Com- 
ment File), hereafter Stubbe Comments. 



**A weather condition which occurs in the highland regions of 
Southeast Asia for periods of three to five days at a time between Octo- 
ber and April. It is described as: "A persistent low-level stratus phe- 
nomenon accompanied by prolonged precipitations which greatly affects 
military operations. Clouds are generally 3,000 to 5,000 feet thick with 
ceiling under 1,000 feet and frequently below 500 feet. Visibility is . . . 
generally below 2 miles and frequently below 1/2 mile." Asst Chief of 
Staff, G-2, memo to Asst Chief of Staff, G-3, dtd 4Jul67, Subj: Plan- 
ning Conference, in 3d MarDiv ComdC, Jul67. Colonel Frederic S. 
Knight, who served as the 3d Marine Division G-2 or intelligence offi- 
cer in 1968, noted that the word comes from the French verb, cracker, 
which means to spit: "A friend said the true meaning of the word is best 
described as 'that which blows back into your face when you spit into the 
wind.'" Col Frederic S. Knight, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 
IOJan95 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Knight Comments. 



58 



KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



59 




Department of Defense (USMC) Phutu AiyU186 
A typical Bm village south ofKhe Sanh has simple houses built on stilts to be above the ground and 
with grass roofs for protection from the elements. One of the aboriginal tribes who inhabited the Viet- 
namese highlands and whom the French called Montagnards, the Bru had been resettled largely 
along Route 9 near Khe Sanh by the South Vietnamese government. 



itself were ethnic Vietnamese.* A simple honest peo- 
ple without even a written language, the Bru cared lit- 
tle for the authority of the national government or for 
the political upheavals of the war, preferring to remain 
neutral, or at most, to sympathize half-heartedly with 
whichever side controlled their village at any particu- 
lar moment. While their original territory covered 
most of the district, as well as equally large areas in 
Laos and North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese gov- 
ernment resettled most of the Bru of Huong Hoa Dis- 
trict along Route 9 to prevent the enemy from recruit- 
ing among them. 

In addition to the Bru and Vietnamese, a few French 
coffee planters and American missionaries inhabited 
the area in the vicinity of Khe Sanh. Some of the Bm 
were employed by the former and a few even received 
a rudimentary education from the latter. 



*The Montagnard (a French word meaning "mountaineer") tribes 
were not Vietnamese by descent or culture, but rather, an aboriginal 
people who inhabited the highlands. Unworldly, poor, and apolitical, 
the Montagnards were often viewed by the Vietnamese as a lesser peo- 
ple and sometimes were treated with contempt. Colonel Knight wrote 
that the Vietnamese name for the tribesmen was Moi which meant sav- 
age. He explained that the term Montagnard came into use "at the 
insistence of Ngo Dinh Diem who deplored the common Vietnamese 
usage . . . ." Knight Comments. Chaplain Stubbe noted the sharp con- 
trast between the houses in Khe Sanh Village made of concrete and 
wood where the ethnic Vietnamese lived and the homes of the Bru 
made of bamboo with grass roofs and on stilts in the surrounding 
"villes". Stubbe Comments. 



The Early Days 

The history ot Marines at Klie Sanh predates their 
involvement in the Vietnam War by three decades. 
Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, who served as 
the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific 
during the war, remembered that while stationed in 
China in 1937, his battalion commander. Major 
Howard N. Stent, visited the area to hunt tiger Like 
many visitors to Khe Sanh, Major Stent was impressed 
with its beauty, and returned to China with stories of 
the tall, green mountains, waterfalls, abundant game, 
and the peaceful Bru tribespeople.^ 

In August 1962, MACV established a Special 
Forces CIDG camp at an old abandoned French fort, 
about two kilometers east of the village of Khe Sanh 
and just below Route 9, for border surveillance and 
anti-infiltration operations.** In November 1964, the 
Special Forces team moved from the French fort to a 
light-duty airstrip, built by French forces in 1949 on 
the Xom Cham Plateau, above Route 9 and about two 
kilometers north of their former base. This new site, 
which eventually became the Klie Sanh b;ise, had sev- 



**CIDG is an acronym for Civilian Irregular Defense Group. The 
CIDG consisted of local militia, armed, trained, advised, and, in tact, 
led by U.S. and South Vietnamese Special Forces personnel. Such 
camps were scattered throughout the country. This French tort site 
was later referred to by the American forces at Khe Sanh as the "old 
French Fort." 



60 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



eral advantages. Militarily, it was on relatively level 
ground and offered good fields of fire in all directions. 
The terrain provided both good drainage and stable 
soil, mostly consisting of "laterite clay or weathered 
iron/aluminum rock." It also contained a "few basalt 
outcroppings, at what was later called the 'Rock Quar- 
ry.'" At their new camp, the Special Forces and CIDG 
personnel built a number of bunkers which the 
Marines later at Khe Sanh would refer to, erroneously, 
as "old French bunkers."'' 

Earlier, in the spring of 1964, Major Alfred M. 
Gray, later the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, 
arrived in the Khe Sanh sector with a signal intelli- 
gence detachment and an infantry platoon and estab- 
lished a radio monitoring site atop Dong Voi Mep, bet- 
ter known to the Marines as Tiger Tooth Mountain, 
north of the CIDG camp. The composite force, desig- 
nated Marine Detachment, Advisory Team 1 , was "the 
first actual Marine ground unit to conduct indepen- 
dent operations in the Republic of Vietnam." After its 
position had been compromised in July, the team rede- 
ployed to Da Nang.'' 

In 1966, III MAF carried out two battalion-sized 
operations near Khe Sanh to search for North Viet- 
namese units reported by Special Forces personnel. 
The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines arrived in April and 
established a camp around the airstrip from which to 
conduct Operation Virginia. After searching the 
mountains around the CIDG camp for a week with- 
out finding a trace of the enemy, the battalion 
marched back to the coast along Route 9, becoming 
the first "major force" to accomplish this feat in at 
least eight years. ^ 

In late September 1966, Lieutenant Colonel Peter 
A. Wickwire's 1st Battalion, 3d Marines arrived at 
Khe Sanh as part of Operation Prairie, beginning 22 
months of continuous Marine presence in the area. 
The monsoon was upon Klie Sanh by this time, and 
the Marines experienced temperatures as low as 40 
degrees and winds which gusted to 45 knots. The bad 
weather caused the airstrip to close frequently and 
when aircraft could not land at the combat base, some 
types of supplies reached dangerously low levels. After 
four months of vigorous patrolling, the Marines found 
little in the way of enemy forces, claiming only 15 
dead North Vietnamese." 



During Operation Prairie, the Special Forces per- 
sonnel relocated their CIDG camp to the village of 
Lang Vei on Route 9 between Khe Sanh and the Laot- 
ian border. A detachment known as Forward Operat- 
ing Base 3 (FOB-3)," first located in Khe Sanh village, 
moved to the old French fort, and then, in the latter 
part of 1967, deployed to newly built quarters adjoin- 
ing the JGie Sanh combat base. A small MACV advi- 
sory team remained at the district headquarters in Khe 
Sanh village.'' 

In February 1967, III MAF had established Com- 
bined Action Platoon O to work with the Bru in the 
area. "CAP Oscar," as it was called, was the only unit 
in the Combined Action program to work with a 
Montagnard tribe. The CAP headquarters was in 
Khe Sanh village from where they patrolled the sur- 
rounding Bru hamlets.'" 

By this time, February 1967, the 1st Battalion, 
3d Marines had departed for Okinawa, but Com- 
pany B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines took the bat- 
talion's place to protect a detachment of Seabees 
from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 10 
which was assigned to extend and improve the 
airstrip. The company patrolled the hills and val- 
leys for any sign of Communist forces. Within a 
month, increased contact led the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion to reinforce Khe Sanh with a second company 
and in late March the Marines became engaged 
with a powerful enemy force. The 3d Marine Divi- 
sion assigned control of the forces at Khe Sanh to 
the 3d Marines on 20 April 1967. 'Within a mat- 
ter of days, the Marines encountered strong North 
Vietnamese forces in fortified positions on the hills 
to the north of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, 
prompting the commanding officer of the 3d 
Marines, Colonel John P. Lanigan, to deploy his 2d 
and 3d Battalions to the area. The ensuing battles 
to eject the North Vietnamese from the command- 
ing terrain overlooking the combat base became 
known as the "Hill Battles" and lasted until 11 
May. In some of the most vicious fighting of the 
war. Marines wrested control of Hills 86 1, 881 
North, and 881 South from the enemy.*'* 

The fighting in the First Battle of Khe Sanh was 
savage and costly for both sides. Marine casualties 



*The Marines would later escablish in late 1966 a radio relay sta- 
tion on Hill 950, about 3,500 meters north of Khe Sanh and 9,000 
meters southeast of Tiger Mountain. Prados and Stubbe, Valley of Deci- 
sion, p, I 28. Sec also Stubbe Comments. 



* *FOB-3 was an element of the Studies and Observation Group 
(SOG), which trained Nung, Muong, and Bru Montagnards for clan- 
destine operations against Communist forces along infiltration routes. 

***For detailed accounts of the Hill Battles, see Telfer, Rogers, 
and Fleming, U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1961 , Chapter 4 and Prados and 
Stubbe, Valley of Decision, pp. 83-105. 



KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



61 



numbered 155 killed and 425 wounded, while the 
North Vietnamese left nearly 1 ,000 dead on the bat- 
tlefield. When the battle ended, the Marines held 
the hills which overlooked the combat base, thus 
hampering Communist observation and fire on the 
vital airstrip through which supplies and replace- 
ments flowed. >i 

Protecting the Investment 

Immediately following the Hill Battles, III MAF 
reduced the force at Khe Sanh to a single battalion. The 
3d Marines departed the area, giving way to Lieutenant 
Colonel Donald E. Newton's 1st Battalion, 26th 
Marines. Overall control of operations around Khe 
Sanh passed to Colonel John J. Padley, commanding 
officer of the 26th Marines. 

Lieutenant Colonel Newton's Marines maintained 
company outposts on some of the commanding hills 
and conducted patrols in the surrounding jungle as 
part of Operation Crockett. As enemy contacts and 
sightings increased, the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines 
deployed to Khe Sanh, giving Colonel Padley the 
capability, if necessary, to meet another major North 
Vietnamese effort like that encountered during the 
Hill Battles. 

Supplies reached the Marines at Khe Sanh either 
by air or by vehicle convoys from the 3d Marine 
Division base at Dong Ha. The trip along Route 9 
took the convoys through territory which was far 
from secure, and they traveled well-armed and pro- 
tected, usually accompanied by an infantry unit and 
often by armored vehicles. 

On 21 July, an infantry unit sweeping ahead of 
an 85-vehicle convoy trying to bring 175mm guns 
to reinforce the Marine base encountered strong 
enemy forces along the highway. While the Marine 
infantry engaged the North Vietnamese, the con- 
voy, which included besides the 175s, "trucks 
loaded with ammunition and C— 4 explosives, clay- 
mores, mines, and other ordnance," returned to 
Camp Carroll. The ambush threat was too great to 
risk the guns.'-* 

While the Marines would continue some road con- 
voys into Khe Sanh in the fall, it soon became clear that 



for all practical purposes Route 9 was closed." Since 
the runway was closed for repairs to damage caused by 
the constant landing of heavily laden transport aircraft, 
the Marines had to depend on helicopters and para- 
chutes to maintain their logistic lifeline. 

The Isolation of Khe Sanh 

With their successful interdiction of Route 9, 
the Communist forces isolated Khe Sanh from the 
rest of the ICTZ. Fortunately for the Marines, while 
the weather remained clear, air resupply could pro- 
vide for the needs of the combat base. With the 
onset of the monsoon and the crachin, however, low 
cloud ceilings and lim.ited visibility would severely 
limit flights to Khe Sanh. Ill MAF was familiar 
with this problem. As early as 1966, III MAF staff 
members conducted a wargame of the defense of 
Quang Tri Province in which they failed to defend 
Khe Sanh. During the exercise, when General 
Westmoreland expressed his dismay at this deci- 
sion,*" III MAF planners had responded that they 
considered Khe Sanh too difficult to support, citing 
the ease with which the enemy could cut Route 9 
and the problems with air resupply during the 
monsoon. Now the game had become real. In July 
1967, before the combination of enemy action and 
monsoon rains ended the convoys, the logisticians 
of the 3d Marine Division recommended planning 
for the air delivery of supplies to the combat base 
whenever the weather permitted. The airstrip 
remained closed to all but light aircraft and heli- 
copters throughout September while the Seabees 
peeled up the old steel matting, and laid a new sub- 
grade of crushed rock.'-^**** 



*One authority on the battle for Khe Sanh, Cliaplain Stubbe, com- 
mented that he was not sure why the guns .were sent in the first place. 
His supposition was that they would be used to support FOB-3 oper- 
ations in Laos. He was certain, however, that the guns would have 
made excellent targets for the North Vietnamese when they attacked 
the base. Stubbe Comments. 



* *Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J, McEwan, who in 1967 was the S-4 
or logistics officer for the 26th Marines, remembered an occasion when the 
North Vietnamese blew a bridge over the Roa Quan River. He, with the 
regmiental commander and engineer together with a rifle company, made 
a reconnaissance on the practicality of repairing the span: "A search was 
made for alternate crossing points to no avail. Major damage was done to 
the bridge. There were strong indications of the enemy's presence. It was 
not the time to build a bridge over the Roa Quan River on Route 9 lead- 
ing to Khe Sanh." LtCol Frederick J. McEwan, Comments on draft chap- 
ter, dtd 7Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter McEwan Comments. 

***As former Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup comment- 
ed, "Westmoreland always wanted to hold Khe Sanh as a base for U.S 
operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail." Peter Braesttup, Com- 
ments on draft chapter, n.d. [Dec94-Jan95] (Vietnam Comment File). 

*** *Lieutenanc Colonel McEwan remembered that obtaining the 
crushed rock was not a simple matter. He recalled chat it was not until 
"a sergeant found a hill mass that had rock" which later naturally 
became known as the "Rock Quarry." McEwan Comments. 



62 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



In October, the monsoon struck with a vengeance, 
pouring 30 inches of rain on ICTZ. Klie Sanh did not 
escape the deluge. The hill positions were especially 
hard hit. Unlike the Xom Cham plateau, the sur- 
rounding hills and mountains did not have soil suitable 
for construction, and the rain pointed up this weak- 
ness. The battalion commander. Lieutenant Colonel 
James B. Wilkinson, described some of the damage: 

. . .when the first torrential rains of the season hit [Hill] 
861 the results were disastrous. The trenchline which 
encircled the hill washed away completely on one side of 
the position and caved in on another side. Some bunkers 
collapsed, while others were so weakened they had to be 
completely rebuilt.'"** 

The Marines kept busy repairing damage and 
improving their positions. New bunkers on Hill 861 
stood almost completely above ground, and the new 
trenchline included a drainage system jury-rigged 
from discarded 5 5 -gallon drums. Space on board 
resupply helicopters was critical, and priority for con- 
struction materials went to the airfield project, leaving 
little or no room for imported fortification materials. 
Logging details searched the nearby jungle for suitable 
wood, but many trees were so filled with steel frag- 
ments from the earlier Hill Battles that the engineers' 
chain saws could not cut them.'"* 

October brought more than the monsoon. That 
month, the North Vietnamese 323C Division, which 
had taken part in the earlier "Hill Battles," appeared 
again in the enemy order of battle for Khe Sanh."^' On 
31 October, Operation Ardmore ended with Operation 
Scotland beginning the next day. Little more than a 
renaming of the continuing mission of defending Khe 
Sanh and using it as a base for offensive action against 
Communist infiltration, Operation Scotland became 
the responsibility of the 26th Marines. 

November began clear and sunny at Khe Sanh, but 
by the 10th, the crachin returned. Seabees continued 
work on the airfield, improving it to the point that it 
was suitable for use by medium-sized cargo aircraft, 
such as the Fairchild C-123 Provider, but more work 
was necessary before it could safely handle the heavy 
Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft.'^ 

Anxious to find alternate methods to support the 
units on the hill outposts, should bad weather or 
enemy fire prevent helicopter resupply, the 26th 




Photo courtesy of Col Robert W. Lewis, USMC (Ret) 
An aerial view of the Khe Sanh Combat Base facing north- 
west (note north arrow at top of photo) was taken in Novem- 
ber 1967 at 10.000 feet, with the airstrip seen in the cen- 
ter of the photo. By this time, medium-sized fixed-wing 
transport aircraft could land on the airstrip, but the road 
supply network had been cut. 

Marines studied the route from the combat base to 
Hill 881 South. Representatives from the 3d Motor 
Transport Battalion, the 3d Antitank Battalion, and 
the 3d Engineer Battalion examined the route and 
determined that it would require extensive engineer 
preparation before it could accommodate vehicle 
convoys. '8 

The 3d Marine Division assigned the 26th Marines 
to prepare a contingency plan for the relief, if needed, 
of the Lang Vei Special Forces CIDG Camp.** The new 
commanding officer of the 26th Marines, Colonel 
David E. Lownds, ordered his 1st Battalion to find an 
overland route from the combat base to the CIDG 



'Lieutenant Colonel Harper L. Bohr commented that the rain m 
September resulted in "the collapse of some newly completed bunkers 
resulting in the deaths of several Marines." LtCol Harper L. Bohr, Jr., 
Comments on draft chapter, dtd 2Novl994 (Vietnam Comment File). 



**There were actually two Lang Vei Special Forces Camps. The 
first one had been overrun in May 1967 while the Marine command 
was engaged in the Hill Fights. The American command decided to 
relocate the camp a few hundred meters to the southwest. Lieutenant 
General Louis Metzger, in 1967 a brigadier general and the 3d Marine 
Division assistant division commander, commented that "Westmore- 
land was specially interested in this camp . . . and had the Seabees com- 
pletely rebuild that camp with heavy concrete bunkers ... so strong . 
. . {that it could withstand] a tank on top of it without crushing it in." 
The new camp was finished in the fall ot 1967. LtGen Louis Metzger, 
Comments on draft, dtd 170ct94 (Vietnam Comment File). See also 
Prados and Stubbe, Valley of Decision, pp. 188-189- Army Colonel 
Bruce B. G. Clarke observed that the contingency plan also called for 
the relief of the district advisors in Khe Sanh village. Col Bruce B. G. 
Clarke, USA, Comments on draft chapter, n.d. {Apr95] (Vietnam 
Comment File), hereafter Clarke Comments. 



KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



63 




Photo courtesy of Col Robert W. Lewis, USMC (Ret) 
Aerial view of Hill 881 South in November 1967, reveals the strategic outpost northwest of Khe 
Sanh. The Khe Sanh base can be seen in the background. 



camp which could be used by a company-sized rehef 
force. Captain John W. Raymond led Company A into 
the jungle to find such a route, avoiding well-used 
trails to reduce the risk of ambush. The straight-line 
distance was less than nine kilometers, but only after 
19 hours of struggling through the treacherous ter- 
rain, did the Marines reach the CIDG camp, proving 
that it could be done, but demonstrating that it could 
not be done quickly or easily. The 26th Marines 
attempted no further efforts to locate cross-country 
routes to Lang Vei. 

On 9 November, III MAF moved to increase the 
intelligence collection capability at Khe Sanh by 
deploying a detachment from the 1st Radio Battalion* 
under now Lieutenant Colonel Gray to the combat 
base. The detachment moved to Hill 881 South and 



* Radio battalions are Marine Corps electronic warfare units capa- 
ble of conducting signal intelligence activities, mainly intercepts. 



established an electronic listening post, much as Gray's 
other unit had done four years earlier. i^ 

The crachin so hampered air operations at IClie Sanh 
during November that on the 18th, Lieutenant 
Colonel Wilkinson passed the word to his men to pre- 
pare for the possibility of reducing rations to two meals 
per day.-" The same weather problems affected direct 
air support bombing missions. To improve the accura- 
cy of bombing near Khe Sanh during periods of heavy 
fog or low clouds, the Marines installed a radar reflec- 
tor atop Hill 881 South which, in theory, would serve 
as a navigation aid to attack aircraft supporting the 
combat base. The reflector did nor work, however, as it 
was incompatible with the radar systems on board the 
Grumman A— 6A Intruder attack aircraft which were 
designed to carry out bombing missions in conditions 
of restricted visibility.-' 

Enemy activity increased dramatically during 
December. The 3d Marine Divisions intellit;ence offi- 



64 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



cers identified two North Vietnamese units between 
Khe Sanh and Ca Lu: the 8th Battalion, 29th Regiment 
and the 93C Regitnent. Around the combat base, 
Marine patrols sighted new bunkers near Hill 881 
North as well as North Vietnamese carrying supplies 
and heavy weapons. Sniper fire increased around Hill 
881 South and the enemy attempted probes against 
Hills 861 and 950. Intelligence sources reported that 
both the 304th Division and the 325C Division of the 
North Vietnamese Army were near Khe Sanh and 
another enemy unit, the 320th Division, was east of the 
combat base, near Camp Carroll and Cam Lo. Perhaps 
the most revealing indicator of increased enemy activ- 
ity was the rise in North Vietnamese truck traffic along 
the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail network from a month- 
ly average of 480 vehicles in the fall to more than 6,000 
in December.22 

With only one battalion at Khe Sanh to protect the 
combat base and its vital airstrip, as well as the sur- 
rounding hills, the 26th Marines' defenses were 
stretched thin. The III MAF staff, with many sources 
of intelligence available, recognized the significance of 
the enemy buildup, prompting Lieutenant General 
Cushman to call Major General Tompkins on 13 
December to direct that another battalion be sent to 
Khe Sanh. Major General Tompkins, fearing that 
northeastern Quang Tri was much more vulnerable, 
argued the point and recorded later that he was "not at 
all excited about the idea."-^ Nevertheless, within five 
hours. Lieutenant Colonel Harry L. Alderman's 3d Bat- 
talion, 26th Marines touched down at Khe Sanh's 
recently refurbished airstrip.* 

The 3d Battalion conducted a four-day sweep of a 
ridge line west of the combat base, then settled into new 
positions. Companies I and K occupied Hills 881 South 
and 861, respectively, and Company L joined the 1st 
Battalion at the combat base proper as Colonel Lownds 
juggled the units among his defensive positions. 

Taking advantage of his increased troop strength to 
conduct battalion-sized operations once again. Colonel 
Lownds sent the 1st Battalion north of the combat base 
to search the Rao Quan River Valley during the last 
three days of December. As on the 3d Battalion's expe- 
dition the previous week, the 1st Battalion encoun- 



tered only light contact, but found ominous signs of 
freshly built bunkers and small caches of supplies.-''** 

The increased enemy activity noted during Decem- 
ber continued. Early in the evening of 2 January, a lis- 
tening post established by Company L, 3d Battalion, 
26th Marines near the west end of the airstrip reported 
several persons 60 meters to their immediate front. 
The company commander dispatched a squad to rein- 
force the listening post. The Marines challenged the 
unidentified men but received no reply. At the 
Marines' second attempt to challenge, the intruders 
opened fire on the listening post. Marines all along the 
nearby perimeter returned fire. The firing died down, 
which saw one Marine slightly wounded, and the 
squad sent to reinforce the listening post searched the 
area to the immediate front, but found nothing in the 
dark. At first light, a patrol searched the area again and 
found five enemy dead. Using a scout dog, they fol- 
lowed the trail of a sixth man, believed wounded, but 
did not find him. -5 

The 26th Marines' intelligence officer. Captain 
Harper L. Bohr, Jr. , examined the bodies of the five 
enemy and came to the conclusion that one of them 
was Chinese, because the man "was just too big and 
too non- Vietnamese looking." He sent photographs 
and a medical description to the 3d Marine Division 
in hopes of receiving confirmation of his supposition. 
Captain Bohr determined that at least some of the 
dead were officers, and a legend later grew that one of 
them was a regimental commander.-''*** At any rate, 
it appeared to the Marines that the enemy had indeed 
been reconnoitering the perimeter, further fueling 
speculation that a major North Vietnamese attack 
was in the making. 

Colonel Lownds continued to seek information con- 
cerning the enemy. Infantry companies scoured the 
nearby jungle while small reconnaissance teams estab- 
lished observation posts on more remote hilltops and 
watched for signs of movement. The Marines contin- 
ued to employ the latest technology to augment their 
troop patrol effort, including sensors, signal intelli- 



* Colonel Frederic S. Knight of the 3cl Marine Division G-2, or 
intelligence staff, recalled that there was the need for a smaller stale 
map of the Khe Sanh sector to show more detail, one on a scale of 
1:10,000, as opposed to the 1:50,000 standard maps. There was none 
available, but Knight finally found a Seabee, who "laboriously drew on 
what I would call butcher's paper the tactical map displayed in Colonel 
Lownds' bunker during the entire siege." Knight Comments. 



**Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth W. Pipes, who as a captain com- 
manded Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, commented that his 
company was the anvil for this operation and that one of his platoons 
ambushed an enemy reconnaissance unit, killing two or three North 
Vietnamese soldiers. He remembered some maps and that the enemy 
gear and weapons were helilifted out. LtCol Kenneth W. Pipes, Com- 
ments on draft chapter, dtd 10Mar95 (Vietnam Comment File). 

***Captain Bohr later wrote that this claim could not be substan- 
tiated. See Maj Harper L. Bohr, Jr., Comments on "The Battle for Khe 
Sanh," 18Dec68 (Khe Sanh Monograph Comment File). 



KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



65 



gence, infrared aerial photo reconnaissance, and a rela- 
tively new device formally known as the XM— 3 air- 
borne personnel detector (APD), but popularly called 
the "People Sniffer." The XM-3 was the size of a suit- 
case, able to be mounted in a Huey helicopter, and 
designed to measure "ammonia emanations from the 
skin." While no one technique was sufficient in itself, 
in tandem, they provided the U.S. command sufficient 
evidence that the enemy was in the Klie Sanh sector in 
strength.-^* For the Marines at Khe Sanh, increased 
patrol contact indicated an enemy counter-reconnais- 
sance screen in action. 

The Decision to Hold 

On 6 January, General Westmoreland initiated 
Operation Niagara, a two-part plan to find enemy 
units around Khe Sanh and to eliminate them with 
superior firepower. The first part of the operation, 
Niagara I, called for intelligence officers to mount a 
"comprehensive intelligence collection effort" to 
locate and identify enemy units. In Niagara II, air- 
craft, including Boeing B— 52 Stratofortresses of the 
4133d Bomb Wing in Guam and the 4258th 
Strategic Wing in Thailand, were to saturate target 
areas with bombs. -» Major General George Keegan, 
Seventh Air Force G— 2, moved quickly to establish 
an integrated intelligence collection and analysis 
effort that would compile and record information 
from all sources. Fie went so far as to bring eight 
French generals, some of whom were survivors of 
Dien Bien Phu, to Vietnam as experts on Commu- 
nist siege tactics. -9** 

In the U.S. capital, the Johnson administration 
focused almost obsessively on the IChe Sanh situation 
with the President himself poring over detailed maps 
of the area. On 1 1 January, General Earle G. Wheeler, 



*Chaplain Stubbe retailed that the "People Sniffers" were bringing 
back hundreds of contacts. He remembered in the 26th Marines com- 
mand post, "the map with the little red dots on the plastic overlay, and 
everyone wondering if this might not be an error — the detections of 
the ammonia from the urine of packs of monkeys." Stubbe also 
observed that the Marines also realized that radio pattern analysis 
could err when the NVA put out false transmitters, "broadcasting as 
though they were a Hq thus drawing airstrikes on a lone transmitter 
in the hills rather than a NVA Hq . . . ." Notwithstanding these flaws, 
Stubbe contended eventually "together and coordinated, the intelli- 
gence was of great significance." Stubbe Comments. 

**Accomplished without the knowledge of the American Ambas- 
sador, this allegedly agitated the Director of the Joint U.S. Public 
Affairs Office, Saigon. See W. Scott Thompson and Col Donald D. 
Frizzell, USAF, eds.. The Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Crane, Russak, 
and Co., 1977), p. 183. 




Photo C8543-7 from LBJ Library Collection 
The situation at Khe Sanh has intense high level interest as 
President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, is seen here studying a 
map of Khe Sanh with Presidential Assistant Walt W. Ros- 
tow, left, and CIA Director Richard Helms. 

USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent Gen- 
eral Westmoreland a message in which he noted that 
there had been "discussion around town in very high 
non-military quarters" concerning the enemy's inten- 
tions at Khe Sanh. Fie outlined the two divergent 
views which were food for thought among the highly 
placed, but unnamed, individuals who were concerned 
about the coming battle. One view held that Khe Sanh 
must be defended because it afforded an opportunity to 
draw large enemy forces to battle, then to destroy them 
with a combination of superior firepower and a coun- 
terthrust into Laos. The other view strongly counseled 
abandoning Khe Sanh because "the enemy {was} build- 
ing toward a Dien Bien Phu."'" 

On a superficial level, the situation at Khe Sanh 
began to have a certain resemblance to Dien Bien Phu, 
14 years earlier.*** Both were remote outposts organized 



***In November 1953, the French occupied and fortified the village 
of Dien Bien Phu in northwest Tonkin. The Viet Minh besieged the out- 
post, capturing it in May 1954 after a dramatic battle involving great loss 
of life on both sides. The fall of Dien Bien Phu was the final straw which 
broke the back of French colonialism in Indochina, leading to the 1954 
Geneva Accords and the partitioning of the Associated States ot French 
Indochina into autonomous countries. In both his comments and his 
book. Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, who was CGFMFPac in 
1968, took strong exception to the Dien Bien Phu analogy. He observed 
that militarily the differences far outweighed the similarities. He empha- 
sized the vast advantages in both fire and the overall tactical situation that 
the Americans possessed at Khe Sanh over the French at Dien Bien Phu. 
LtGen Victor H. Krulak, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 31 Oct 1 994 
and P/rst to Fig/jt, pp. 215-16. 



66 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



around small airstrips in the highlands. They were 
each served by a single light-duty road which, in both 
cases, was cut by the enemy, and were forced to rely 
upon air delivered supplies. In early 1954 the crachin 
restricted flying at Dien Bien Phu as it did at Khe 
Sanh in early 1968. 

The Dien Bien Phu analogy mentioned in General 
Wheeler's message dated back to at least January 1967, 
well before it was touted and dissected in Washington's 
"very high non-military quarters." Even before the 
First Battle of Khe Sanh, the 3d Marine Division staff 
prepared an informal document entitled "Khe Sanh 
Area Report." The report analyzed the terrain and sit- 
uation which the French had encountered at Dien Bien 
Phu, comparing them to the terrain and possible 
enemy action at Khe Sanh."' 

MACV also made its comparison between the two 
events, but after the enemy buildup. General West- 
moreland ordered his command historian, Colonel 
Reamer W Argo, Jr., USA, to prepare a study on the 
siege of Dien Bien Phu and other "classic sieges" to 
determine how Khe Sanh fit into the historical prece- 
dent. With his study not completed until early Febru- 
ary, Colonel Argo presented to the MACV staff the 
rather bleak conclusion that Klie Sanh was following 
"the pattern of previous sieges" in which the advantage 
lay with the besieging forces rather than the defense. In 
his diary, Westmoreland characterized the entire pre- 
sentation "fraught with gloom. "'^ 

Despite the chilling effect of Colonel Argo's study 
upon his staff, General Westmoreland was determined 
that Khe Sanh could be held because the Marines 



there had advantages which the French had lacked at 
Dien Bien Phu. First, they controlled the hills which 
dominated Khe Sanh, whereas the French had left the 
commanding heights around Dien Bien Phu to the 
enemy in the mistaken belief that artillery could not 
possibly be moved onto them through the rugged ter- 
rain. Further, the French were strangled by lack of suf- 
ficient air transport and delivery capability to meet 
resupply needs. At Khe Sanh, the airstrip could now 
handle the large C— 130 cargo aircraft and, even when 
weather or enemy fire precluded landing, modern U.S. 
air delivery methods could ensure that the base 
remained supplied. Probably most significant, 
though, was the advantage in firepower which the 
Marines enjoyed. The French had supported Dien 
Bien Phu with a few World War Il-era aircraft flying 
from distant bases to reach the battlefield at extreme 
range, thereby reducing their payload and "loiter 
time" over the target area. The Marines at Khe Sanh 
could expect massive and overwhelming fire support 
from modern, high-performance jet attack aircraft and 
Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses with their precision, 
high-altitude, heavy bombardment capability. Marine 
artillery units at the combat base and on the hill posi- 
tions, as well as 175mm guns based at Camp Carroll, 
could provide continuous all weather firepower.^J 

All of the American commanders on the scene had 
no doubt about their ability to hold the base. Lieu- 
tenant General Cushman, the III MAF commander, 
spoke for all of his Marine commanders when he later 
stated, "I had complete confidence in my Marines. Of 
course they were outnumbered, but we had beautiflil 



U.S. Army artilUrymen from the Third Section. Battery C, 2d Battalion, 94th Artillery Regiment 
at Camp Carroll are seen firing a 1 75 mm gun in support of the Marines at Khe Sanh. The Ml 07 
175mm gun fired a 147 -pound projectile and had a maximum range of nearly 20 miles. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A801357 




KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



67 



air and artillery support." He remarked that while 
weather was a factor the forecasts were that the weath- 
er would improve rather than deteriorate. As he con- 
cluded, "I was concerned but not worried about the 
battle." While General Westmoreland, the MACV 
commander had less confidence in the defensive mea- 
sures taken by the Marines at the base, he later wrote 
that his decision to hold Khe Sanh, "was to my mind 
militarily sound and strategically rewarding. "5 < 

Even while General Westmoreland ticked off the 
reasons why Khe Sanh could be defended, the bigger 
question was: why should it be defended? General 
Westmoreland later wrote: 

Khe Sanh could serve as a patrol base tor blocking 
enemy infiltration from Laos along Route 9; a base for 
SOG operations to harass the enemy in Laos; an airstrip 
for reconnaissance planes surveying the Ho Chi Mmh 
Trail; a western anchor for defenses south of the DMZ; 
and an eventual jump-off point for ground operations to 
cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. ^5 

General Westmoreland's proposal for a ground 
operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail took the form 
of a planned invasion of Laos, codenamed Operation El 
Paso. Although planning for the operation continued 
through January, MACV did not intend to execute it 
until fall or winter, after the northeast monsoon had 
passed. General Westmoreland said he wanted the plan 
to be ready in time for the November 1968 presiden- 
tial elections "so that we would have a military plan 
that could take advantage of a possible change in 
national policy. ""^^ 

In addition to these reasons for defending Khe Sanh, 
General Westmoreland pointed to tactical considera- 
tions, noting that "had we not taken a stand in that 
remote area, our forces would have inevitably been 
required to fight in the more populous coastal areas 
where the application of firepower would have been 
hampered in order to protect civilians."" 

Lieutenant General Cushman was "in complete 
agreement" with the decision to hold Khe Sanh, point- 
ing out that, although the combat base did not really 
deter infiltration, it was "a complete block to invasion 
and motorized supply." He fUrther felt that it was nec- 
essary to retain bases like Khe Sanh because they 
allowed him to conduct mobile operations in the 
enemy's base areas at a time when III MAE did not 
have enough troops effectively to cover all of the terri- 
tory near the DMZ.^« 

Even General Krulak, who in 1966 had opposed the 
idea of large unit operations near Khe Sanh, now 
agreed with General Westmoreland, saying that while 



"to withdraw would save lives that would otherwise be 
lost, . . . nobody ever won anything by backing away."39 
Although agreeing with the need to defend Khe Sanh 
once engaged, Krulak continued to insist that the 
Marines never should have been there in the first place. 
He quoted General Giap as wanting to stretch "the 
Marines as taut as a bow string and draw them away 
from the populated areas."'" While the North Viet- 
namese continued to place pressure on the Marines at 
Khe Sanh, General Krulak doubted that General Giap 
would engage the Americans on their terms. Eor Kru- 
lak, "Khe Sanh was an unsound blow in the air."" 

The intentions of the North Vietnamese at Khe 
Sanh still are a subject of debate. In contrast to Gener- 
al Krulak, Army Brigadier General Philip B. David- 
son, the MACV intelligence officer or J— 2, later argued 
that General Giap meant for "Khe Sanh to be Phase III, 
the culmination of the Great Offensive, Great Upris- 
ing." Davidson maintained that the North Vietnamese 
planned to overwhelm the American base with two to 
four divisions and end "the war with a stunning mili- 
tary victory. "^" 

In one of their recapitulations of the Khe Sanh 
experience in 1969, the North Vietnamese appeared 
to agree in part with elements of General Krulak's 
analysis of their designs and also those of General 
Davidson and General Westmoreland. The North 
Vietnamese authors stated that the mission of the 
overall general offensive including Khe Sanh "was to 
draw the enemy out {into remote areas], pin him 
down, and destroy much of his men and means of 
conducting war." Specifically, the Khe Sanh-Route 9 
campaign portion of the overall offensive had several 
aims, including the destruction of "an important por- 
tion of the enemy's strength, primarily the Ameri- 
can." The North Vietnamese wanted to draw the U.S. 
forces "out Route 9, the further the better," and then 
"tie them down." The campaign called for close coor- 
dination with other North Vietnamese and Viet Cong 
commands throughout South Vietnam, especially 
with M.ilitat'y Region Tri-Thien-Hne. According to the 
North Vietnamese study, the destruction of "enemy 
strength and coordination with other battlefields 
[military regions] are the most fundamental {and] 
important." The plan directed that North "Viet- 
namese commanders "focus mainly on striking the 
enemy outside his fortifications, " but "to strike the 
enemy in his fortifications when necessary and 
assured of probable victory. "In effect, the North Viet- 
namese would take Khe Sanh if they could, but there 
were limits to the price they were willing to pay. 



68 



THE DEFIXIXG YEAR 



Their main objectives were to kill American troops 
and to isolate them in the remote mountain border 
region of western Quang Tri Province.-*^ 

The Stage is Set 

On 10 January, Colonel Lownds closed a regimental 
staff meeting with the warning that he expected an 
enemy attack within 10 days.-" The Marines continued 
the unending process of "digging in" with the objective 
of providing every fighting position and important facil- 
it\' with overhead protection. Over the next few days, 
patrols continued to engage the enemy. Units reported 
that enemy sappers had cut the perimeter wire in some 
places, but had carefully replaced it to hide the cuts. 

Lieutenant General Cushman wired Major General 
Tompkins on 13 January to expect an attack on Khe 
Sanh to begin on the 18th. To meet the threat. III MAE, 
he said, would give Khe Sanh priori r\- on B— 52 sorties, 
effective 1 6 Januar\-. Further, General Cushman request- 
ed that two U.S. Army brigades be placed on 24-hour 



alert tor redeplo\-ment to ICTZ. '"^ The same day Colonel 
Lownds ordered that all personnel within the Khe Sanh 
Combat Base, starting on 1 5 Januar}-, would wear hel- 
mets and flak jackets and carry weapons at all times.-^ 

On the afternoon of 14 Januar\^, Second Lieutenant 
Randall D. Year\' led a reconnaissance patrol back 
towards friendly lines on Hill 881 South after four days 
in the jungle. As the patrol moved down the south 
slope of Hill 881 North, one kilometer from their des- 
tination, the North Vietnamese caught them in an 
ambush. In the opening shots of the fight, an RPG 
round killed Lieutenant Yeary and Corporal Richard J. 
Healy. The six remaining men in the patrol, heavily 
outgunned and all but two wounded, withdrew, leav- 
ing the bodies behind. Nearby, under heavy fire, heli- 
copters extracted the survivors. A platoon from Com- 
pany I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines searched the area 
later and recovered the bodies.'*" 

Far to the south, as part of Operation Checkers, the 
2d Battalion, 5th Marines occupied new positions at 



Alarines at Khe Sanh. wearing their flak jackets, fill satidbags to reinforce bunkers froin incoming 
artillery' rounds. The Marines later came under criticism that they left too many positions vulnera- 
ble to the enemy bombardment. 

Photo from 3d MarDiv ComdC, Feb68 







KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



69 



Phu Bai, freeing the 2d Battalion, 26th Marines to 
redeploy to Dong Ha. On 1 5 January, while the latter 
battalion moved into its new quarters at Dong Ha, 
Major General Tompkins became concerned about the 
increase in enemy probes against Khe Sanh. Deciding 
that Colonel Lownds "didn't have enough people," he 
sent a message to III MAF advising that he intended to 
reinforce Khe Sanh. General Cushman concurred and 
at 1730, the 3d Marine Division contacted the 2d Bat- 
talion, 26th Marines and notified the commanding 
officer, Lieutenant Colonel Francis J. Heath, Jr., that 
his destination was changed to Khe Sanh. '« 

At 0715 the following day. Heath's Marines began 
flying into Khe Sanh on board fixed-wing transport 
aircraft and for the first time since arriving in 'Vietnam, 
the 26th Marines was together as a regiment. '' While 
the rest of the battalion occupied an assembly area near 
the western edge of the airstrip. Company F marched 
three kilometers north to Hill 558. Overlooking the 
Song Rao Quan at a point where its valley opens 
toward the combat base. Hill 558 was a good position 
from which to control movement along the river. Com- 
pany F reported that the hill was clear of the enemy and 
on 17 January, the rest of the battalion moved forward 
and established a three-infantry company strongpoint. 

'While the 2d Battalion was redeploying. General 
Cushman inspected the defenses of Khe Sanh. Follow- 
ing the visit, he told General Tompkins that he 
thought the combat base needed a better patrolling 
plan, more seismic intrusion detectors, and additional 
work on the fortifications. Of particular concern to 
General Cushman was the ammunition storage area 
which, he advised General Tompkins, needed "tidying 
up." A large quantity of the base's ammunition was 
stored outside the revetments, making it vulnerable to 
enemy fire. "Within a week, this last warning would 
appear a prophecy. 5»* 



*Army Lieutenant General Philip B. Davidson, the former MACV 
J— 2, wrote that on 20 January 1968 he visited the Khe Sanh base with 
his counterpart on the III MAF staff to talk with Colonel Lownds about 
the enemy buildup. While there, he noted the "tents, fuel ammunition 
dumps, and command post — all above ground and unprotected . . . ." 
In reporting his discussion and what he saw to General Westmoreland, 
the latter became agitated about the "description of the unprotected 
installations at Khe Sanh and the general lack of preparation to with- 
stand heavy concentrations of artillery and mortar fire . . . ." Davidson 
recalled that Westmoreland turned to his deputy. General Creighton W. 
Abrams, and said, "'Abe, you're going to have to go up there and take 
over.'" According to Davidson, this was the prelude to the establish- 
ment of MACV (Forward). See Chapter 6 for further discussion relative 
to MACV (Forward). LtGen Philip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, The 
Histoij: 1946-1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 198cS), pp. 554-56. 



The Marines at Khe Sanh were 'well aware of their 
■vulnerabilities. "What had been a one-battalion outpost 
in early December had now expanded to three battal- 
ions. With Route 9 closed, U.S. aircraft could keep the 
Marines supplied with adequate ammunition and 
rations, but could only bring in limited heavy equip- 
ment and fortification material. Lieutenant Colonel 
Frederick J. McEwan, the 26th Marines S-4, years later 
remembered that the artillery battalion's bulldozer 
"was one of the most valuable and overcommitted 
hea-vy equipment items." According to McEwan, "it 
dug gun emplacements, ammo revetments, other 
berms, . . . tank hull defilade positions, and was used 
extensively and dangerously maintaining the land san- 
itation fill. "'51 

In an attempt to disperse the ammunitfon. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel McEwan provided for three storage 
areas. He placed the main ammunition dump on the 
east end of the combat base, just off the runway and 
dug in with revetments, but it was filled to capacity. 
Another ammunition dump was located on the west- 
ern end of the airstrip near the artillery battalion, and 
a third closer to the central area of the combat base. 
As an expedient for further dispersion, he force fed as 
much ammunition as feasible to the combat units. 
Still, as Captain William J. O'Connor, commander of 
Battery C, 1st Battalion, 13th Marines at Khe Sanh, 
recalled that he personally was "very concerned . . . 
that the ammo dump was located between my area 
and the air strip." It was obvious to him that its loca- 
tion would place his battery and the air strip "in jeop- 
ardy" and the target of enemy guns. O'Connor insist- 
ed that his men dig spider holes outside the gun 
emplacements and that they wear their helmets and 
flak jackets." 

On 18 January, the 26th Marines reported another 
sudden heavy increase in enemy sightings and activi- 
ty. That afternoon, a reconnaissance team made con- 
tact with the enemy on Hill 881 North, suffering two 
casualties and immobilizing the team. The 3d Platoon 
of Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines, moved out 
from a patrol base nearby and rescued the team with- 
out incident. The reconnaissance Marines, however, 
lost a radio and a manual encryption device" during 
the firefight. 



** Called a "shackle sheet " by the Marines, this was simply a small 
printed page containing letters and numbers arranged in random fash- 
ion with a key used to arrange them in a rudimentary code. It w;is used 
to encrypt certain information, such as friendly positions, tor trans- 
mission over the radio. 



70 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Captain William H. Dabney's Company I received 
orders to search for the missing radio and codes. At dawn 
on 19 Januarv^, the 1st Platoon, commanded by Second 
Lieutenant Harr\' F. Fromme, departed Hill 881 South 
for the scene of the ambush. At 1200, while moving 
along a finger which led northeast up to the crest of Hill 
881 North, the platoon engaged a North Vietnamese 
unit in defensive bunkers. Fromme and the platoon had 
patrolled the hill before and noticed that the trail had 
been altered, which alerted them to possible danger'^ 

Lieutenant Fromme called tor mortar fire and 
artillery as he led his platoon through the thick vege- 
tation, attempting to maneuver against the North 
Vietnamese. When three Marines fell with wounds. 
Private First Class Leonard E. Newton stood erect in 
the high kunai grass and fired his M60 machine gun 
from the shoulder, providing covering fire for others 
who attempted to rescue them. Even after the wound- 
ed Marines were carried to safety, Newton continued to 
stand, engaging North Vietnamese positions until he 
was killed in action.'-"" 

Fromme's Marines broke contact and returned to 
Hill 881 South with total casualties of one killed and 
three wounded. Eight North Vietnamese were con- 
firmed dead. The platoon did not find the missing 
radio nor the code sheet.'' 

Captain Dabney, having a premonition that "some- 
thing was about to happen," requested and received 
permission to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force to Hill 
881 North with his entire company on the next day. 
Marine helicopters brought in two platoons and a com- 
mand group from Company M, 3d Battalion, 26th 
Marines to Hill 881 South to help man the perimeter 
during Company Ts absence.'^' 

Elsewhere around Khe Sanh, sightings of the enemy 
continued unabated. Reconnaissance patrols reported 
groups of as many as 35 North Vietnamese at a time 
and listening posts detected enemy troops moving near 
Marine positions.'" It seemed that Captain Dabney's 
guess was correct: "something was about to happen." 

Sortie to Hill 881 North 

Company I departed at 0500, 20 January', moving 
through dense fog into the valley which separated 



Hill 881 South from its neighbor to the north. Dab- 
ney split his company into two columns which 
moved along parallel fingers about 500 meters apart. 
On the left. Lieutenant Fromme and his 1st Platoon 
led the way, followed by the company command 
group and Second Lieutenant Michael H. Thomas' 
2d Platoon. In the column on the right marched Sec- 
ond Lieutenant Thomiis D. Brindley's 3d Platoon 
and the six Marines remaining from Company B, 3d 
Reconnaissance Battalion who had participated in 
the patrol of 18 January. 58 

At 0900, the fog lifted as the Marines crossed the 
narrow valley floor and began the climb up Hill 881 
North. As during the first part of their journey, the two 
columns traveled along parallel fingers. Near the crest, 
four small hills formed a line perpendicular to Compa- 
ny Is advance. 

Thirty minutes into Company I's ascent, the 
enemy opened fire from positions on one of the small 
hills, forcing the 3d Platoon to the ground. The other 
column surged forward on the left in an attempt to 
flank the North Vietnamese, but was almost imme- 
diately stopped by heav\' fire from another enemy 
strongpoint which caused several casualties. The 
company "dug in" and called for fire support. Enemy 
gunners shot down a Sikorsky UH— 34 Sea Horse 
helicopter from Marine Aircraft Group 36 attempt- 
ing to pick up Company I's wounded, but the crew 
escaped injury.''^'* 

As Marine artillery fire fell on the enemy, the 3d 
Platoon, joined by the reconnaissance team, 
advanced once again, assaulting and overrunning 
the nearest NVA positions, then continued to the 
top of the hill. Lieutenant Brindley charged to the 
crest of Hill 881 North at the head of his platoon, 
only to fall to a sniper's bullet, mortally wounded.'*' 
With the 3d Platoon now atop the hill but low on 
ammunition, suffering numerous casualties, and 
under heaw machine gun fire, Dabney committed 
his reserve. The 1st Platoon held fast and supported 
by fire, while the 2d Platoon and command group 



*For his courageous act. Private First Class Newton received the 
Silver Star, posthumously. Lieutenant Fromme remembered that New- 
ton, who was right next to him, was killed in the "first few minutes of 
the fire fight." The platoon's radioman "tried repeatedly to pull him 
down." Harry F. Fromme, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 27Nov94 
(Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Fromme Comments. 



** Lieutenant Fromme remembered that "one of the more daring 
moments happened after the chopper was hit. It 'slid' off the left side 
of the finger and down some 50 meters to the draw below. " Fromme 
stated that his platoon sergeant took one of his squads to rescue the 
crew of the helicopter; "For me, it was 30 minutes of nerves. Still, 
directing suppressing fire on the hill Brindley's then Thomas' platoons 
were trying to take. I wonder to this day why the NVA on our finger 
did not attack at this moment." Fromme Comments. 

*** Lieutenant Brindley received the Navy Cross, posthumously, 
for the action on Hill 881 North. 



KHE SANH: BUILDING UP 



71 




ALLIED AND ENEMY UNITS 

IN THE KHE SANH AREA 

JANUARY 1968 

1000 2000 3000 4000 
Meters I 1 1 1 



withdrew to the south, crossed to the finger on the 
right then turned north again to reinforce the belea- 
guered 3d Platoon. Captain Dabney remembered 
that at one time he called in an air strike that 
"dropped napalm 100 meters from 3d Platoon to 
end a counterattack. "''i' 

"When the 2d Platoon reached the crest. Lieu- 
tenant Thomas learned that some Marines from the 
3d Platoon and the reconnaissance team were miss- 
ing. Some had fallen, wounded, during the attack, 
while others had pursued the fleeing enemy only to 
be wounded and cut off from the company forward 
of the hilltop position. Thomas immediately orga- 
nized a rescue effort, recovering six of the injured 
Marines under murderous enemy fire. Wounded 
himself while carrying out the sixth man, Thomas 
refused evacuation and returned to search for the last 
two. Moving under fire to rescue the Marines, he 



was killed in action. <'•* 

During the battle, the commanding officer of the 
3d Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Harry L. Alder- 
man, flew to Hill 881 South with his command 
group to find the two platoons of Company M and 
the other Marines left atop the hill pouring recoilless 
rifle and mortar fire into the North Vietnamese on 
Hill 881 North as Company I fought at close quar- 
ters. Alderman asked Lownds for reinforcements to 
help clear enemy resistance from Hill 881 North and 
consolidtite the new position. Lownds denied the 
rec^uest, ordering Company I to break contact imme- 
diately and return to Hill 881 South. His reasons 
would become known soon enough. 

Using air strikes and artiUer)- to cover its with- 
drawal, Company I backed down the face of Hill 881 



*Li(;uttn,iiu Thomas rctcived the Navy Cross, posrluimously. tor 
the action on Hill 881 North. 



72 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



North and returned to Hill 881 South at 1800. The 
company lost 7 killed and 35 wounded. While with- 
drawing, it estimated at least 100 dead North Viet- 
namese on the face of the hill.'^'* 

The Enemy Flan Unfolds 

While Company I battled what appeared to be a 
Communist battalion for Hill 881 North, a rather 
bizarre and fortuitous event took place at the combat 
base: the disclosure of the enemy plan for the attack on 
Klie Sanh. At 1400 on 20 January the 2d Platoon, 
Company B, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines reported that 
a North Vietnamese soldier was waving a white flag 
near its position on the northeastern perimeter of the 
combat base. The company commander, Captain Ken- 
neth W Pipes, took a fire team approximately 500 
meters outside the lines where the Communist soldier 



*Army Colonel Bruce B. G. Clarke commented that on the 20th 
as well, the Army advisors at the district headquarters led a small force 
and patrolled an area to the south of the Khe Shan base, but withdrew 
to make way for a B— 52 strike. Clarke Comments. 



willingly surrendered. The battalion commander, 
Lieutenant Colonel James B. Wilkinson, questioned 
the prisoner immediately after his capture and was 
"impressed by his eagerness to talk."""'^ 

The rallier,** as he turned out to be, was Lieutenant 
La Thanh Tone, the commanding officer of the l4th 
Antiaircraft Company, 93C Regiment, 325C Division. He 
freely provided detailed information on the enemy's 
dispositions and plan of attack for Khe Sanh, includ- 
ing the fact that the North Vietnamese would attack 
Hill 861 that very night. Coming as it did on the 
heels of Company Is encounter with the enemy on 
nearby Hill 881 North, the information was plausible. 
Colonel Lownds dispatched an officer courier to 3d 
JMarine Division headquarters with the information. 
The combat base and the hill positions were as ready 
as possible under the circumstances. There was noth- 
ing left to do but wait.<^ 



* *The term "rallier" was applied to North Vietnamese or Viet 
Cong who availed themselves of the "Chieu Hoi" ("Open Atms ") pro- 
gram to defect to the Government of South Vietnam. 



CHAPTER 5 

The 3d Division War in Southern Quang Tri and 
Northern Thua Thien, Operations Osceola and Neosho 

Protecting the Quang Tri Base, Operation Osceola, I— 20 January 1968 
Operation Neosho and Operations in the CoBi-Thanh Tan, 1—20 January 1968 — Operation Checkers 



Protecting The Quang Tri Base, 
Operation Osceola. 1—20 Januc 



:ting The Quang Tri Base, 
Osceola. 1-20 January 1968 



Faced with the buildup of the North Vietnamese 
forces opposing them at the end of 1967, General 
Tompkins and the 3d Marine Division staff prepared 
for the forward deployment of the remaining division 
units in Operation Checkers from Thua Thien 
Province to Quang Tri, including the movement of 
the division command post from Phu Bai to Dong 
Ha. In turn, the 1st Marines in southern Quang Tri 
was to take over the 4th Marines TAOR in Thua 
Thien and then eventually revert to the control of the 
1st Marine Division. 

The 1st Marines had moved north from Da Nang in 
early October 1967 to reinforce the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion and conduct Operation Medina. Medina was a 
multi-battalion operation designed to clear the Hai 
Lang National Forest, located south and west of Quang 
Tri City and containing the enemy Base Area 101 . Base 
Area 101, in the far southwestern reaches of the forest, 
extended down to and beyond the Quang Tri and Thua 
Thien provincial border, and was home to the 5th and 
9th NVA Regiments. After offering resistance in a few 
heavy skirmishes during the first phase of the opera- 
tion, enemy forces eluded the Marines for the rest of the 
operation.' In the nearly impenetrable jungle terrain, 
the 1st Marines uncovered some enemy base camps and 
storage areas but no sign of NVA or VC troops. After 
confiscating more than four tons of enemy rice and 
miscellaneous weapons and ammunition, the Marines 
ended Operation Medina on 20 October and immedi- 
ately began Osceola.' 

In Osceola, the 1st Marines with two battalions, the 
2d Battalion, 4th Marines and 2d Battalion, 1st 
Marines, remained in the same objective area, but also 



* Colonel Gordon D. Batchelier, who as a captain commanded Com- 
pany A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, observed that in the initial contact 
in Medina, the enemy more than held its own: "They were fast and agile 
and we were slow and clumsy. Terrain, vegetation, insufficient helo sup- 
port had something to do with it." Col Gordon D. Batchelier, Com- 
ments on draft chapter, dtd 10Decl994 (Vietnam Comment File). 



became responsible for the newly established Quang 
Tri base, near the city of Quang Tri. Out of North Viet- 
namese heavy artillery range, the Quang Tri base 
served as a backup to the main logistic base at Dong 
Ha and provided a new air facility for the Marine forces 
in the north. On 25 October, the first KC-130 trans- 
port aircraft landed at the Quang Tri Airfield. - 

In command of the 1st Marines since July 1967, 
Colonel Herbert E. Ing, Jr, an experienced and deco- 
rated combat officer, viewed his Osceola mission dif- 
ferently than that of Medina. At the beginning of 
Osceola, American intelligence warned that the North 
Vietnamese were reorganizing for an offensive against 
Quang Tri City. Colonel Ing believed, however, that 
Operation Medina and ARVN supporting operations 
had thwarted any such plan. As a native Long Islander 
and former enlisted Marine who shrewdly selected his 
options, he took practical steps to safeguard the Quang 
Tri base and to cut down on his own casualties. Con- 
centrating on defending the airbase rather than fruit- 
less searches for enemy units in the jungle, Ing initiat- 
ed a pacification campaign and organized an innovative 
anti-mine program.^ 

During Osceola, the 1st Marines only once engaged 
an enemy main force unit, the VC 808th Battalion, at 
the edge of the Hai Lang National Forest near the 
Giang River, about four to five miles south of the 
Quang Tri base. The 808th and the 41 6th VC Battal- 
ions apparently alternated moving into the Quang Tri 
coastal region to disrupt the South Vietnamese govern- 
ment apparatus there. The VC employed at least three 
hamlets in the central portion of the Osceola operating 
area, Nhu Le, Nhan Bieu, and Thuong Phuoc, all on or 
near the Thach Han River, as way stations for their 
units travelling to and from the biise areas into the pop- 
ulated coastal plain. Colonel Ing considered that secur- 
ing or at least neutralizing these hamlets was absolute- 
ly vital to the success of his mission.^ 

Sustaining most of his casualties from mines and 
occitsional sniper rounds. Colonel Ing, on 27 Novem- 
ber 1967, established an infantr\' cordon around Nhu 



73 



74 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Le and Thuong Phuoc. Believing Nhu Le us the focal 
point of the VC mining effort, Ing decided to install a 
permanent company patrol base in the hamlet, which 
resulted in a dramatic drop in mining and enemy inci- 
dents. On 1 5 December, however, the VC, using Nhan 
Bieu as a staging and harbor area, mortared the Quang 
Tri Airfield. The Marines then occupied that hamlet." 

Ing, earlier, had initiated Operation Minefind. In 
the first phase, the 1st Marines commander assigned a 
Marine infantry company, reinforced by several engi- 
neer mine detector teams, to a 1,000-meter area. 
While the infantry provided security, the mine detec- 
tor teams would sweep the sector. During the second 
phase of Operation Minefind, Ing inaugurated an 
incentive program that appealed both to the Marines 
and the local civilian population. The regiment 
rewarded any Marine that uncovered a mine with four 
days rest and recreation (R&R) within country and 
placed no restrictions on the number of times that a 
Marine could receive such a reward. Using a full- 
fledged advertising campaign, including aerial broad- 
casts, dropping and passing out leaflets, and passing 
the word by mouth during Marine Med CAP (Medical 
Civilian Assistance Program) visits to the local ham- 
lets, the 1st Marines promised money payments for all 
turned-in explosive devices. 

This program soon gained positive results. In 
November, the 1st Marines reported that its "Mine 
Awards" strategy brought in 251 pieces of ordnance as 
compared to some 50 items before the regiment initi- 
ated the program. By the end of the year. Marines 
found over 300 explosive devices themselves and local 
civilians turned in another 370. Yet, the 2d Battalion, 
4th Marines soon discovered that at least in one ham- 
let, Thon Nai Bieu (2), the local children "experienced 
a prosperous business in exchanging grenades for 
reward money." The youngsters obtained grenades and 
other ammunition from the South Vietnamese Popular 
Force (PF) troops in the village and then brought them 
to the Marines and claimed their reward. Lieutenant 
Colonel William Weise, the battalion commander, 
quickly established liaison with the village chief and 
the practice became less flagrant.' 

Despite the obvious potential for fraudulent claims, 
the program still saved lives. During the Christmas 
truce, for example, a nine-year-old boy approached the 
PFs in Thon Nai Bieu (2) where the 2d Battalions 
Company G had set up defensive positions. Through 
an interpreter, he told the company commander. First 
Lieutenant Richard L. Harshman, that the VC had 
planted boobytraps. The boy then led the Marines to 



the site where the troops uncovered a Chinese grenade 
and two antitank mines. In this case. Lieutenant 
Colonel Weise gladly presented the boy with a cash 
"Christmas gift."" 

With two battalions assigned to him for Osceola, 
Colonel Ing had divided the area of operations into 
northern and southern sectors, largely demarcated by 
the Thach Han River. The northern battalion provided 
protection to the airfield while the southern battalion 
secured the avenues of approach. Ing used small recon- 
naissance teams to patrol the further reaches of the 
Osceola area under the protective cover of the attached 
artillery from the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines. Occa- 
sionally the southern battalion would make a sortie 
into Base Area 101 or into the Ba Long Valley, usually 
with only limited success. 

During late December and early January there was 
a reshufiling of infantry battalions in the Osceola oper- 
ating area. In the southern sector. Lieutenant Colonel 
Marcus J. Gravel's 1st Battalion, 1st Marines shortly 
before Christmas reverted to its parent regiment's con- 
trol after a few months' stint at Con Thien. It relieved 
the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, commanded by Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Evan L. Parker, Jr., which took over the 
Con Thien outpost. Shortly before New Year's Day, the 
1st Battalion, 3d Marines, under Lieutenant Colonel 
Richard W Goodale, formerly the SLF (Special Land- 
ing Force) battalion Alpha of the Seventh Fleet, left the 
operational control of the 9th Marines and came under 
the 1st Marines. At noon on 1 January, Lieutenant 
Colonel Goodale assumed command of the Osceola 
northern sector and responsibility for the security of 
the Quang Tri Airfield from Lieutenant Colonel Weise. 
Early on the miorning of 2 January, the 2d Battalion, 
4th Marines transferred to the direct control of the 3d 
Marine Division in preparation for becoming the new 
battalion landing team (BLT) ot SLF Alpha.'^ 

This succession ot units caused a minor disruption 
of operations, especially in the northern sector. With 
its pending departure, the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines 
evacuated Nhan Bieu on 30 December. On 5 January, 
however, the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines reestablished 
a company-size patrol base near Nhan Bieu and the 
neighboring hamlet of An Don. The Company A 
commander. Captain David Hancock, formed a pro- 
visional rifle company consisting of his 2d and 3d 
Platoons reinforced by a South Vietnamese Popular 
Forces (PF) platoon from Mai Linh District. Hancock, 
together with an improvised command group, the 
battalion civil affairs officer, and an artillery forward 
observer team, linked up with the PFs and two South 



OPERATIONS OSCEOLA AND NEOSHO 



75 





Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A.Sd 
An aerial view in June 1968 shows a much more hiiilt-iip Quaiig Tri base and airfield than that 
seen in January during Operation Osceola. The Thach Han River can be seen in the background and 
Route 1 and a secondary road in the foreground. 



111)1 



Vietnamese Armed Propaganda Teams at the Quang 
Tri bridge spanning the Thach Han River on Route 
1. By 1830, the combined force had established its 
base area and constructed its night defensive posi- 
tions. The company was to conduct "extensive opera- 
tions in this area to destroy guerrilla forces and the 
local infrastructure."'' 

On this same date, the battalion's Company B, 
under Captain Thomas A. Scheib, in its sector about 
2,000 meters to the west of Nhan Bieu, came under 
heavy machine gun fire. The Marines returned the 
fire and killed at least one of the enemy. In the search 
for the enemy weapon, the Americans found the VC 
body, some miscellaneous clothing, and an AK— 47 
rifle. During the survey of the enemy effects, one 
Marine tripped a wire and detonated an attached 



block of TNT. The explosion resulted in one serious- 
ly wounded Marine, who was evacuated by helicopter 
to Quang Tri.'" 

The continued occupation of Nhan Bieu and Nhu 
Le appeared to stabilize the situation tor Lieutenant 
Colonel Goodale in his base defense mission. Togeth- 
er with the South Vietnamese village chiefs and dis- 
trict officials, the Marines instituted an extensive civil 
affairs and psychological operations campaign, which 
according to the 1st Marines, "showed ever)- sign of 
being a success."" 

Yet, areas of ambiguity continued to exist. On the 
night of 10 Januar)', Captain Hancock staked out two 
ambushes near Nhan Bieu. About 2315, one of them 
reported movement and requested illumination. The 
Marines saw six shado\\')' figures enter a tree line. 



76 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



About then, the other Marine outpost received incom- 
ing small arms fire and someone threw a grenade into 
their positions. The JVTarines responded with their own 
salvo, including M— 79 rounds. In the confusion and 
darkness, the enemy broke contact and slipped away. 
The next morning, the Nhan Bieu hamlet chief noti- 
fied Captain Hancock that the VC had murdered a vil- 
lager during the night. A subsequent investigation dis- 
closed that the 60-year old man may have died as a 
result of "friendly fire." Many questions still remained: 
What was he doing in the woods during the night and 
why did the village chief blame the killing on the 
enemy? There probably were no good answers.'- 

While maintaining a presence in the hamlets, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Goodale attempted to keep the enemy 
off balance with an occasional excursion into the 
foothills and numerous river valleys in his western sec- 
tor. In one typical such operation on 14 January, 
Goodale launched a two-company "hammer and 
anvil" assault against a suspected enemy main force 
battalion in the area. At 0730, the battalion command 
group together with Company D, "the anvil," occu- 
pied the hamlet of Ai Tu about 2,000 meters west of 
the airfield. Company D then moved another 2,000 
meters further west and settled into a blocking posi- 
tion in the high ground along a secondary road, Route 
604, leading off Route 1, and south of the Vinh Phuoc 
River. The "hammer" company, Company B, located 
2,000 meters south, then advanced along a stream bed 
to the north, hoping to smash any Viet Cong or NVA 
against Company D. 

Shortly after beginning its advance. Company B 
encountered small arms fire, about 30 rounds, from its 
front. The Marines responded with their M— l6s and 
60mm mortars. After progressing another 2,000 
meters without resistance, the company again 
engaged the VC, in this instance calling upon artillery 
support. At the same time, about 0900, the Viet Cong 
hit a Company D position with about 20 rounds. Fif- 
teen minutes later, members of a Marine Combined 
Action Platoon (CAP), attached to Company B for the 
operation, saw seven North Vietnamese soldiers in the 
open, carrying weapons and packs, attempting to 
flank the advancing Marines. The CAP warned Com- 
pany B and called artillery down upon the enemy 
troops. Company B received some sniper fire from its 
rear, but otherwise met no further opposition. By 
noon, the two Marine companies had linked together. 
The casualty scoreboard wiis about even: the Marines 
sustained one wounded man from Company B and 
found no enemy bodies.'* 



The reconnaissance Marines attached to the 1st 
Marines and the southern battalion. Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel's 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, played 
much the same "cat and mouse" game with the NVA 
and VC, occasionally with more success. On 2 January, 
Gravel conducted a two-company operation about 
three to five miles southwest of Quang Tri City just 
north of the Thach Han River Acting on intelligence 
that a NVA battalion commander, a Captain Minh 
Chau of the 4th Quyet Tien Battalion, had established his 
command post in Thuong Phuoc on the northern bank 
of the river, the Marine battalion secured the hamlet. A 
search for the NVA command group proved fruitless, 
but the battalion, based on its intelligence information, 
uncovered an NVA "harbor" site in the hills about 
three miles west of Thuong Phuoc. The site contained 
a kitchen and a personnel bunker large enough to 
accommodate nine persons. After destroying the 
enemy site, the Marines returned to their base area. 
During the operation, a Company C patrol near a bend 
in the river saw 13 enemy troops in green uniforms and 
took them under both rifle and artillery fire, killing at 
least one. In his January report, the battalion intelli- 
gence officer noted that during the day the battalion 
sighted some 57 enemy at ranges of 500 meters or 
more and brought them under artillery fire. The bat- 
talion claimed killing 10 of the enemy, although these 
figures are not confirmed in the regimental account. '^ 

Two days later, on 4 January, a reconnaissance team 
from the 3d Reconnaissance Battalion at 1415 engaged 
about 12 NVA in about the same area where the 1st 
Battalion, 3d Marines' operation on 14 January took 
place. The team killed two of the enemy, recovered two 
AK— 47 rifles, a pistol, a pair of binoculars, a wallet 
containing 5,500 piasters, and miscellaneous papers, 
rice, and clothing.''' 

On the l4th, another team from the 3d Force 
Reconnaissance Company, perched on the high ground 
overlooking the Thach Han River, saw about 30 NVA 
"with full equipment, helmets, and heavy packs" and 
one .50-caliber machine gun moving south towards 
the river. The Marines called an airstrike on the enemy, 
but were unable to observe the results. These NVA 
may have been from the same North Vietnamese units 
that were attempting to evade the two 1st Battalion, 
3d Marines companies to the north."' 

Throughout the operation. Lieutenant Colonel 
Gravel's 1st Battalion continued to see daily enemy 
troop movement in small groups of two to eight in the 
rolling hills south of its combat base at Lang Va, north 
along the Thach Han River, and across the river in the 



OPERATIONS OSCEOLA AND NEOSHO 



77 



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OPERATIONS OSCEOLA 

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1st Battalion, 3d Marines' sector. According to the bat- 
talion January report, the battalion Marines counted 
166 enemy sightings, not including the 57 reported 
during the two-company sortie across the Thach Han 
on 2 January. Most of these sightings were at distances 
of 500 meters or further. The Marines would either call 
artillery or, if the enemy were within range, open up 
with small arms. In either event, the Marines seldom 
found out how effective their fire was upon the enemy. 
They did know the NVA and VC kept coming.'^ 

The battalion's biggest catch occurred on 1 6 Janu- 
ary. A patrol from Captain Gordon D. Batcheller's 
Company A came across a wounded North Vietnamese 
officer in the hills south of the village of Hai Phu. The 
officer, First Lieutenant Nguyen Van Dinh, was the 
assistant company commander of the 1st Company, K.8 
(808th) Battalion. A South Vietnamese Armed Propa- 
ganda Team had shot Lieutenant Dinh during a recon- 



naissance he was making of the La Vang and Quang Tri 
City vicinity. He apparently was trying to make his 
way back to his base area when the Marines captured 
him. According to a diary that the enemy lieutenant 
carried on him, Dinh had participated in a December 
attack on a Marine position just south of Hai Phu.'" 

Two days later, Captain Merrill J. Lindsay's Compa- 
ny C encountered a significant number of North Viet- 
namese, south of the Hai Le hamlets, a village complex 
bordering the Thach Han. At 0945, two VC nearly 
walked into a Marine position in the hills south of the 
village. The Marines opened fire and killed both ol 
them and captured one carbine. Later that evening, 
about 1730, another Marine patrol from Company C 
encountered about 12 khaki-uniformed NVA just out- 
side Hai Le. In the exchange of fire, the Marines slew 
another enemy soldier and recovered a submachine 
t;un. One hour later, in about the same area, the 



78 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Marines saw another 10 NVA in tiie open and took 
them under mortar, grenades, and small arms fire. The 
result was another dead enemy. Company C apparent- 
ly intercepted an enemy force either trying to enter Hai 
Le or more likely, trying to reach the river for opera- 
tions closer to Quang Tri City.'' 

Despite the sudden flurry of activity, Operation 
Osceola for the 1st Marines was drawing to a close. The 
operation officially terminated at midnight on the 
20th.-" For the entire operation, the 1st Marines report- 
ed killing 76 enemy troops, 21 of them during Janu- 
ary, at a cost of 17 dead Marines and 199 wounded. In 
addition, the Marines took prisoner one VC and three 
NVA. From 1 to 20 January, the Marines sustained 
casualties of 26 wounded and no dead as compared to 
7 dead and 70 wounded during December. The 
December figures were somewhat skewed by the mor- 
tar attack on the airfield which accounted for 1 of the 
dead and 40 of the wounded. Despite the relatively few 
enemy dead, Colonel Ing considered the operation a 
success. He pointed to his "Operation Minefind" 
which accumulated 377 explosive devices uncovered 
by Marines and another 370 pieces of ordnance 
brought in by civilians. Ing believed that this program 
together with the occupation ot key hamlets and con- 
stant patrolling rendered "a most effective enemy 
weapon virtually ineffective and drastically reduced the 
number of Marine casualties incurred as a result of 
mines." Most significantly, with the one exception of 
the mortar attack on the airfield, the 1st Marines pro- 
tected the increasingly important Quang Tri base with 
its growing logistic facilities from enemy attack. 
Although enemy units in the Quang Tri sector were on 
the move, they seemed deliberately to avoid Marine 
patrols and positions.-' 

Operation Neosho and Operations in the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan. 1-20 January 1968 

Further south, in the CoBi-Thanh Tan sector of 
northern Thua Thien Province, during January, the 
remaining 3d Marine Division regiment, the 4th 
Marines at Camp Evans, was winding up Operation 
Neosho. Like Osceola and the DMZ codenamed oper- 
ations, Neosho was a permanent area of operations 
rather than a tactical campaign with short-term 
objectives. Marine units had been operating in the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan since the spring of 1 966 and the 4th 
Marines had established its command post at Camp 
Evans in December of that year. In 1967, the regi- 
ment continLied to run operations in the region. 



changing the name designation from time to time for 
the usual reporting and record-keeping purposes. On 
1 November 1967, Operation Fremont became 
Operation Neosho with the same units and in the 
same area of operations.-- 

The area of operations stretched from the My Chanh 
River south to the river Bo, a distance of some 14 
miles. From west to east, from the fringes of the enemy 
Base Area 114 to Route 1, the sector consisted of 17 
miles of jungled mountainous and hilly terrain. East of 
the Marine operating area lay the infamous "Street 
Without Joy," a coastal strip of interlocking hamlets 
extending 20 miles north and south.* Since the days of 
the French War against the Viet Minh, the "Street" had 
been a Communist bastion. The enemy had long used 
the CoBi-Thanh Tan Valley, the opening of which was 
located seven miles south of the Phong Dien district 
capital, Phong Dien City, as the avenue of approach 
from their mountain base area into the "Street With- 
out Joy." From Camp Evans near Route 1, three miles 
south of Phong Dien, the 4th Marines could sortie into 
the valley to impede the movement of NVA and VC 
regulars into the coastal lowlands. The regiment also 
maintained manned outposts on two pieces of strategic 
ground. These were Hill 5 1 , about 4,000 meters north 
of the valley opening, and Hill 674, about 2,000 
meters south of the valley. From Hill 674, which dom- 
inated the surrounding peaks, the Marines had estab- 
lished a radio relay station to ensure adequate voice 
communication within the operating area. 

On 1 November 1967, at the start of Operation 
Neosho, Colonel William L. Dick, the 4th Marines 
commander, a veteran of four World War II campaigns 
including Iwo Jima, had three infantry battalions and 
one artillery battery under his operational control. At 
Camp Evans, the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines provided 
security for the regimental command post, the artillery 
battalion, the 3d Battalion, 12th Marines, and sup- 
porting forces. The two remaining infantry battalions, 
BIT 1/3, the SLF Alpha battalion, and the 1st Battal- 
ion, 4th Marines, were conducting a subsidiary opera- 
tion to Neosho, Operation Granite, south of CoBi- 
Thanh Tan, and west of Hill 674.-' 

In Granite, the Marines encountered their stiffest 
opposition during Operation Neosho in 1967. With 
its 1st Battalion under its command together with the 



*"The Street Without Joy" also refers to that portion of Route 1 
from Quang Tri to Hue as well as the coastal strip. See Bernard B. Fall, 
Street Without Joy (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Company, 4th edition, 
1965), pp. 144-47. 



OPERATIONS OSCEOLA AND NEOSHO 



79 




Photo from 12th Mar ComdC, Jan69 
An aerial view of Camp Evans (in and below the cross hairs) in the CoBi-Thanh Tan sector was 
taken a year after Operation Neosho. Like the Quang Tri Base, Evans had expanded during the 
period, but one can see Route 1 in the foreground and the main road network. 



attached SLF battalion, the 4th Marines attempted to 
penetrate the NVA Base Area 1 14. According to aUied 
inteUigence, the base area contained both the head- 
quarters of the 6th NVA Regiment and the Tri Thieu Hue 
Front. Operating in the inhospitable approaches to the 
enemy base area from 25 October through 6 Novem- 
ber 1967, the Marine units brushed up against two 
battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment, the 80()th and 
802d. In scattered, but hard-fought skirmishes, the 
Marines took casualties of 25 killed and more than 80 
wounded while accounting for approximately 20 NVA 
dead and recovering 7 enemy weapons. According to 
the regimental report, "the enemy employed delaying 
tactics utilizing the terrain and vegetation to his 
advantage." Sergeant Ron Asher with Company C, 
BLT 1/3 remembered that the "last few nights were 
bad. Not only wet and leeches, but constant harassing 
and probing at very close ranges."-^ 

After the closeout of Operation Granite, the 4th 
Marines had a reduced number of battalions available 
to it for Neosho. The SLF battalion deployed to 
Quang Tri Province and transferred to the operational 
control of the 9th Marines. After a three-company 



sweep south of the Bo River back into the CoBi- 
Thanh Tan, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and a com- 
mand group of the 4th Marines conducted Operation 
Cove from 18 through 21 November in the Phu Loc 
sector south of Phu Bai. Upon its return from Phu Bai 
to Camp Evans on 22 November, the 1st Battalion 
immediately departed for Dong Ha where it also came 
under the 9th Marines. At the same time, the 1st Bat- 
talion, 9th Marines arrived at Camp Evans and 
relieved the 3d Battalion, 26th Marines for the defense 
of the base and manning the outposts on Hills 51 and 
674. The 3d Battalion then in conjunction with the 
ARVN returned to the CoBi-Thanh Tan where it con- 
ducted small-unit patrols and company-size sweeps. 
On 13 December, the battalion rejoined its parent 
regiment at Khe Sanh to counter the enemy buildup 
there. Neosho now consisted of the 4th Marines head- 
quarters, detachments from the 3d Reconnaissance 
Battalion, the artillery battalion, the 3d Battalion, 
12th Marines, and only one inhintr)' battalion, the 1st 
Battalion, 9th Marines.-^ 

Despite the relatively low casualt)' figures on horh 
sides recorded in Operation Neosho through the end ol 



80 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



December, both General Tompkins, the 3d Marine 
Division commander, and Colonel Dick remained con- 
cerned about enemy intentions in both the CoBi- 
Thanh Tan corridor and in the coastal region of north- 
ern Thua Thien Province, especially in the "Street 
Without Joy" sector. The total of 24 enemy dead in 
Neosho at a cost of 4 Marines killed and 66 wounded 
reflected neither the casualties in Operation Granite 
nor the SLF Bravo operation Badger Tooth. Badger 
Tooth took place in the "Street" from 26—28 December 
in and near the coastal hamlet of Thom Tham Khe just 
north of the Quang Tri-Thua Thien border. In the 
operation, the SLF battalion, BLT 3/1, suffered 48 dead 
and 86 wounded while inflicting only 30 casualties on 
the enemy.* To the southwest in Neosho, furthermore. 
Marine reconnaissance patrols continued to report the 
heavy movement of enemy forces eastward through the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan. One battalion of the NVA 6th Regi- 
me>it, the 802d Battalion, had supposedly departed the 
valley for the Phu Loc District south of Phu Bai. The 
other battalions of the regiment remained in the CoBi- 
Thanh Tan either to screen the approaches to Base Area 
11 A or to move into the coastal lowlands when the 
opportunity presented itself-'^ 

At the end of December 1967, General Tompkins 
provided General Cushman, the III MAF commander, 
his thoughts about the situation in the CoBi-Thanh 
Tan and the "Street Without Joy" sectors. He recom- 
mended that Cushman obtain the authorization for 
another SLF operation in the Badger Tooth area to 
"upset long range plans of Tri Thien Hue forces in the 
coastal area and along routes to their vital base area 
114." According to Tompkins' plan, the SLF battalion 
would land around 6 January 1968 in the former Bad- 
ger Tooth amphibious operational area (AOA) and stay 
about five days there. The BLT then would come under 
the operational control of the 3d Marine Division and 



*Colonel John F. Mitchell, who as a lieutenant colonel command- 
ed the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines at the time, remembered that his 
Company A was supposed to link up with BLT 3/1 in Badger Tooth at 
a river crossing about 10 kilometers from the SLF landing site. Heli- 
copters lifted the Marine company into its objective area, but the SLF 
unit had to abort its part of the mission after the fire fight in Thom 
Tham Khe. With the permission of Colonel Dick, Mitchell took a rein- 
forced platoon from his Company D and mounted tracked vehicles pro- 
vided by an ARVN armored unit and "blitzed 9,000 meters into the 
sand dunes." With this support, Company A was able to disengage 
from a VC force and return to Camp Evans. According to Mitchell, 
Colonel Dick called this operation '"Rommel's War.'" Col John F, 
Mitchell, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 5Jan95 (Vietnam Comment 
File). See also Col William L. Dick, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 
IDec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Dick Comments. 



4th Marines and move into the CoBi-Thanh Tan corri- 
dor. It would remain in the valley for another nine days 
to disrupt the continuing infiltration of the NVA reg- 
ulars into the coastal lowlands. Tompkins mentioned 
some 27 sightings in the past month of enemy troop 
movements in the CoBi-Thanh Tan, some consisting of 
forces as large as 150 to 450 men.-^ 

Despite the obvious increase of enemy activity in 
the CoBi-Thanh Tan, neither III MAF nor the Seventh 
Fleet had the capability of reinforcing the 4th Marines 
there at the beginning of the year. SLF Alpha was in 
the midst of an exchange of units while BLT 3/1, the 
SLF Bravo battalion, had taken heavy casualties in the 
Badger Tooth operation and needed time to recuperate. 
With the buildup of enemy forces along the DMZ and 
near Khe Sanh, General Cushman had few units to 
spare for operations in the CoBi-Thanh Tan. 

At the beginning of 1968, Colonel Dick, the 4th 
Marines commander, had little choice but to continue 
the same mode of operations in Neosho that he had 
used since the departure of the 3d Battalion, 26th 
Marines to Khe Sanh. He later credited the 15th Inter- 
rogation and Translation Team (ITT), headed by Staff 
Sergeant Dennis R. Johnson, which had a small facili- 
ty at Camp Evans, for providing much needed intelli- 
gence through a network of village chiefs.-^ 

The 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, under the com- 
mand of Lieutenant Colonel John F Mitchell, contin- 
ued to man outposts on Hills 51 and 674, provide 
company-size reaction forces when needed, and con- 
duct sweeps along Route 1 and "saturation patrolling 
and ambushing in known avenues of approach within 
5,000 meters of the Camp Evans perimeter." Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Mitchell remembered that he received 
"detailed briefings" from Colonel Dick and the 4th 
Marines staff on the situation and terrain. The battal- 
ion worked with the village chiefs to improve securi- 
ty in the sector. Mitchell assigned one of his compa- 
nies to work directly with the local militia force, a 
Regional Force company. The RFs would raid sus- 
pected VC hamlets, while the Marines made up the 
blocking force. While the technique often resulted in 
prisoners and captured documents, Mitchell later 
admitted that to be truly successful it required 
"longevity, stability, continuity, and prior training of 
Marine personnel," conditions which "did not exist at 
this time of the war."-'' 

The 4th Marines relied heavily on the 3d Recon- 
naissance Battalion detachments for the deeper inser- 
tions to monitor enemy movement, especially in the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan corridor. Although the reconnais- 



OPERATIONS OSCEOLA AND NEOSHO 



81 



sance Marines enjoyed some success in calling in 
artillery and air to disrupt the infiltration of the North 
Vietnamese regulars, the enemy had begun to take 
effective countermeasures. The worst incident occurred 
on 2 January 1968. That day about 0900, under cover 
of a slight drizzle and morning fog, a Marine helicopter 
inserted an eight-man patrol from Company A, 3d 
Reconnaissance Battalion on a hill near the CoBi- 
Thanh Tan ridgeline, about 8,000 meters southeast of 
Camp Evans. The hill offered in good weather an excel- 
lent view of the valley and Route 554, which served the 
NVA as a natural infiltration route into the coastal 
region. The specific missions of the patrol were to 
determine the nature of enemy activity in the area, call 
in artillery and air on targets of opportunity, and, if 
possible, take a prisoner.^" 

The patrol maintained its outpost on an outcrop- 
ping of the hill. In the belief that the two-feet-high ele- 
phant grass on the knoll concealed their presence, the 
Marines failed to lay out claymore mines, but did 
deploy in a circular defensive perimeter. In an eight- 
hour period, the Marines only saw enemy movement 
on two occasions. In the first, about an hour after arriv- 
ing at their outpost, they sighted one enemy soldier, 
who filled his canteen at a nearby stream, and then con- 
tinued on in a southwest direction. About five hours 
later, five more North Vietnamese soldiers came into 
view along the same route as the first. Well-camou- 
flaged with brush, the "enemy appeared to fall down 
and disappear from view."^' 

For another two hours, the Marines observed no 
enemy activity. As evening came on, about 1715, the 
patrol unexpectedly came under attack. Under cover 
of a grenade barrage and heavy machine gun fire, 
about 10 to 15 enemy soldiers rushed the Marine posi- 
tions. Completely taken by surprise, the Americans 
responded with their own automatic weapons and 
grenades, "but initial casualties reduced effective 
return fire." Still, the Marines saw three enemy sol- 
diers felled by their counterfire. The patrol called in an 
"on call" artillery mission, but was unable to deter- 
mine its effectiveness. ^- 

Of the eight men in the defensive perimeter on the 
hill, only two survived. Marine Private First Class 
James P. Brown recalled that "things happened so 
fast — the enemy was all around us." The other sur- 
vivor, the patrol radioman. Marine Private First Class 
James S. Underdue, remembered that he rolled over to 
attend to the wounds of a downed comrade when a bul- 
let grazed his temple. His sudden movement probably 
saved his life. At that point, the patrol leader, a corpo- 



ral, yelled for the remaining men to get out the best 
they could. As Underdue moved away, a grenade blast 
killed the corporal. Underdue and Brown both took 
refuge in a bomb crater about 200 meters down the 
hill. From the crater, they saw U.S. helicopters circling 
overhead. According to Underdue, they tried to attract 
the attention of the pilots by waving a green undershirt 
but that action failed to do so: "One chopper landed 
briefly and we thought they had spotted us. But they 
took off again. I suppose the canopy was too thick." 
Shortly afterward a Marine air observer reported that 
he saw the bodies of six Marines on the hill.'"^ 

After the departure of the helicopter, Underdue and 
Brown took off in the direction of Camp Evans. 
Although without a compass, the sound of American 
artillery provided a bearing for the two Marines. The 
artillery bombardment soon intensified and the two 
men "burrowed a hole and settled down to wait." 
Brown recalled, "several times I thought I heard peo- 
ple approaching us but it was shrapnel whistling 
through the undergrowth." They waited for the 
artillery to stop and then continued on. Private First 
Class Underdue remembered, "the most we stopped 
for was a minute to catch our breath. We had no water 
and hadn't eaten in two days."^' 

The morning of the following day, 3 January, the 
two men crossed an open paddy and then saw what 
they believed to be "a column of troops" on the crest of 
a nearby hill. The hill was actually Hill 51 manned by 
Marines of Company B, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. 
About the same time Underdue and Brown spotted the 
Marines on the hill, a lookout from Company B on the 
outpost sighted them and "reported two unidentified 
personnel." The company commander. Captain Robert 
T. Bruner, then sent out a patrol to determine if they 
were VC or friendly. For a short period, the survivors 
and the Marine patrol played a "cat and mouse game." 
Fording a small stream, Underdue and Brown sudden- 
ly came face-to-face with the point man of the Compa- 
ny B patrol. According to Brown, "for a moment it 
looked as if he were going to open up on us. They 
seemed just as nervous and scared as we were." Within 
40 minutes, the two reconnaissance Marines were back 
at Camp Evans." 

At this point, Colonel Dick ordered Lieutenant 
Colonel Mitchell, the commanding officer of the 1st 
Battalion, 9th Marines, to recover the bodies and 
equipment of the ill-fated reconnaissance patrol. In 
turn. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell directed Captain 
Francis L. Shafer, Jr., the Company D commander, 
maintaining a patrol base near Route 55 i, about "^,000 



82 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



meters west of Hill 51, to carry out the mission. Rein- 
forced by an engineer team and a forward air control 
team, two Company D platoons on 4 January boarded 
Marine CH— i6s to accomplish the grisly task. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel iMitchell himself boarded the command 
helicopter, accompanied the mission, and picked the 
landing zone. While one platoon went into a landing 
zone near where the reconnaissance team was overrun, 
the other remained airborne ready to assist the second 
platoon if necessary. The first platoon found all six bod- 
ies and most of the equipment undisturbed by the 
enemy. Two M— l6s and two radios were missing. 
Loading the dead men and their gear on the heli- 
copters, the Company D Marines returned to their 
patrol base while the CH— 46s took the bodies and 
equipment back for identification and examination.^^ 

While the Company D Marines encountered no 
enemy troops, they found ample evidence that the 
attack on the reconnaissance Marines was not a chance 
encounter. From the fresh shell craters near the site, it 
was obvious the enemy had used mortars to support 
the infantry. The failure of the reconnaissance Marines 
to move from their initial "insertion point" permitted 
the enemy time "to adequately prepare for the 
attack." After interviewing the survivors, the Marine 
debriefer concluded that the enemy force that so care- 
fully planned the ambush was "the most highly 
trained unit yet encountered by Recon teams on the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan Ridge." He believed that the effec- 
tiveness of previous Marine reconnaissance patrols in 
the sector and the calling in of artillery on enemy 
units moving in the valley "prompted this enemy 
counter-reconnaissance action."^" 

Despite the disastrous results of the reconnaissance 
patrol of 2 January, the 4th Marines continued to 
monitor and inflict as much punishment as it could 
upon the enemy units infiltrating into the coastal 
region. On 7 January, a Marine aerial observer direct- 
ed fixed-wing and artillery strikes against enemy 
bunkers and troops in the CoBi-Thanh Tan, about 
2,000 meters southeast of Hill 51 resulting in a sec- 
ondary explosion. The following day. Company A, 
under the command of Captain Henry J. M. Radclifife, 
thwarted an attempt of the Communists to interdict 
Route 1, about 5,000 meters east of Hill 51. After 
studying available intelligence and previous mining 
incidents with Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell and the 
battalion intelligence officer, Radclifife had established 
a .squad ambush in a known enemy infiltration route 
into the Marine area of operations. Close to midnight, 
the VC triggered the ambush. The Marines killed five 



of the enemy, took two prisoners, and captured two 
150-pound bombs that the VC were transporting for 
use as "surprise explosive devices on Route 1 in the 
vicinity of Camp Evans. "^■'^ 

For the next week and a half, the Marine operations 
in Neosho followed the same pattern. For example, on 
1 5 January, an aerial observer controlled both airstrikes 
and artillery in the eastern edge of the CoBi-Thanh Tan 
on an enemy-held fortified hamlet on the west bank of 
the Bo River. The bombardment resulted in two sec- 
ondary explosions, the death of seven enemy troops, and 
the destruction of five bunkers. Four days later, 19 Jan- 
uary, about 4,000 meters south of Hill 51, a Company 
C squad in an ambush site observed about 36 North 
Vietnamese moving along Route 554. The squad leader 
reported the sighting to his company commander on 
Hill 51, Captain John W Craigle. Craigle dispatched 
two more squads to intercept the NVA. An aerial 
observer in a fixed-wing spotter aircraft arrived over- 
head and called an artillery mission on the enemy. The 
two Marine squads then "deployed on line" and "swept 
the area." After a brief firefight, the North Vietnamese 
"broke contact and moved south into the mountains." 
The enemy left behind six bodies, one AK— 47 and sev- 
eral documents. The documents confirmed the Com- 
munist supply routes in the CoBi-Thanh Tan. Finally, 
on the following day, 20 January, Marines captured an 
NVA sergeant and two VC officials, who "pinpointed 
Viet Cong and NVA supply routes, methods and times 
of resupply, enemy movement and other important tac- 
tical information of Viet Cong and NVA activity in the 
CoBi-Thanh Tan Valley."^'' 

The 4th Marines was about to close out Operation 
Neosho. Through 20 January, the regiment accounted 
for 53 enemy dead during the month at a cost of 4 
Marines killed and 34 wounded. The total results for 
Neosho, not including the figures for Operations 
Granite or Badger Tooth, were 77 enemy dead, 9 pris- 
oners, and 10 captured weapons. Marines sustained a 
total of 12 dead and 100 wounded. Although the 4th 
Marines somewhat hampered the enemy infiltration 
through the CoBi-Thanh Tan, the regiment was hard- 
ly in a position to prevent it." According to Colonel 
Dick, the regimental commander, "We were fighting 
on their {NVA} terms . . . , {and the} enemy was will- 
ing to pay the price. "^^ 



*Colonel Dick several years larer remembered that although he did 
not know the specific numbers of enemy moving through the valley, they 
were very large. He wrote: "Groups of several hundred [NVA or VC] were 
repeatedly sighted" by one regimental outpost alone. Dick Comments. 



OPERATIONS OSCEOLA AND NEOSHO 



83 



Operation Checkers 

By this time, Operation Checkers in the 3d Marine 
Division was in full swing. On 15 January, Major Gen- 
eral Tompkins turned over the responsibility of the 
Phu Bai TAOR to the 1st Marine Division Task Force 
X-Ray and moved his command post to Dong Ha. He 
left behind at Phu Bai newly arrived Brigadier Gener- 
al Jacob E. Glick, the former commander of the 9th 
Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) on Okinawa, who 
had just replaced Brigadier General Lewis Metzger as 
the assistant division commander. At Phu Bai, Glick 
had command of the 3d Division rear headquarters and 
support units, which he was to move to the Quang Tri 
base at the beginning of February. 

With the implementation of Operation Checkers, 
the Marine regiments in the division began playing a 
version of musical chairs. The 4th Marines in Opera- 
tion Neosho in Thua Thien Province was to take over 
Operation Lancaster in the central DMZ sector from 
the 3d Marines. In turn, the 3d Marines was to accept 
responsibility for the Osceola area. The 1st Marines was 
then to move its command post to Camp Evans and 
undertake operations in the Neosho sector.-" 

Since the beginning of the month, the three regi- 
ments had made preparations for the forthcoming 
move. For example, on 6 January, the 1st Marines com- 
mander. Colonel Ing, issued his order relative to the 
transplacement of tactical areas. From 6—20 January, 
armed "rough rider" truck convoys ferried his head- 
quarters staff sections and attached detachments from 
the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Engineer Battalion, the 1st 
Shore Party Battalion, 1st Medical Battalion, the 1st 
Motor Transport Battalion, and the 1st Battalion, 1 1th 



Marines the approximate 20 miles to Camp Evans. 
Battery A and the Mortar Battery from the 1st Battal- 
ion, 1 1th Marines also made the move. At 0940 on 20 
January, the 1st Marines opened its new command post 
and assumed operational control of the 1st Battalion, 
9th Marines at Evans. At the same time, Colonel Ing 
turned over to Colonel Joseph E. Lo Prete of the 3d 
Marines the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and the 1st Bat- 
talion, 3d Marines, which both remained in the Osce- 
ola area of operations. At Camp Carroll, Colonel Dick, 
the 4th Marines commander, took control of the 2d 
and 3d Battalions, 9th Marines and began Operation 
Lancaster 11.-"-* 

Events once more altered plans as MACV and III 
MAF shifted units and rushed reinforcements to meet 
the perceived threat to Marine positions along the 
DMZ and to Khe Sanh. The resulting reshuffling of 
units would make the original Checkers plan almost 
unrecognizable. In northern Thua Thien Province and 
southern Quang Tri Provinces, the Army's 1st Air Cav- 
alry Division would establish a new area of operations 
and in effect provide the filler between the 1st and 3d 
Marine Divisions. In central and southern I Corps, 
both the 1st Marine Division and the U.S. Army 
Americal Division attempted to fill the gaps with 
diminishing manpower resources. 



*While the command chronologies of the 1st and 4th Marines 
denote that the 1st Marines assumed command of the Neosho sector 
on 20 January, both Colonels Dick and Mitchell remembered that 
Colonel Dick was still at Camp Evans on 22 January when the 1st 
Battalion, 9th Marines deployed to Khe Sanh. 1st Mar ComdC, 
Jan68; 4th Mar ComdC, Jan68; Dick Comments; Mitchell Com- 
ments. See Chapters 6 and 14 relative to the deployment of the 1st 
Battalion, 9th Marines to Khe Sanh. 



CHAPTER 6 

Heavy Fighting and Redeployment: 
The War in Central and Southern I Corps, January 1968 

A Time of Transition — The Da Nang TAOR — Operation Auburn: Searching the Go Noi — A Busy 

Night at Da Nang — Continuing Heavy Fighting and Increasing Uncertainty — Fhu hoc Operations 

The Formation and Deployment of Task Force X-Ray — The Cavalry Arrives 

The Changed Situation in the North 



A Time of Transition 

In January 1968, Army and Marine units in central 
and southern I Corps under III MAF attempted to con- 
tinue operations as best they could in their old sectors 
while at the same time moving into new tactical areas 
to counter enemy buildups. As the 3d Marine Division 
planned to displace from Phu Bai to Dong Ha, the 1st 
Marine Division began to implement its segment of 
Operation Checkers. One battalion of the 5th Marines 
at Da Nang, the 1st Battalion, in December had 
moved north from positions in the Dai Loc Corridor 
south of Da Nang in Quang Nam Province to Phu Loc 
in Thua Thien Province. In the meantime, the 2d 
Korean Marine Brigade had started its displacement 
from Cap Batangan in northern Quang Ngai Province, 
17 miles south of Chu Lai, to positions north of Hoi An 
in the Da Nang area of operations. 

The U.S. Army's 23d Division, also known as the 
Americal Division, had the responsibility for the 
100-mile expanse of southern I Corps extending from 
the Hoi An River in Quang Nam Province to the 
border with II Corps at Sa Huyen in Quang Ngai 
Province. Formed in Vietnam at Chu Lai from the 
U.S. Army's Task Force Oregon in September 1967, 
the division held three primary operating areas: Due 
Pho in the south, Chu Lai in the center, and the Que 
Son Valley in the north. Assuming the command of 
the division in September, Major General Samuel B. 
Koster, USA, maintained a rather informal command 
relationship with General Cushman. Several years 
later, Koster remembered that he would visit the III 
MAF commander at Da Nang once a week "to tell 
him what we were doing." Although nominally 
under the operational control of the Marine com- 
mand, the Army division commander stated, "I got 
the distinct feeling that [I was] to work my TAOR as 
I saw fit." General Cushman later asserted that he 
treated the Army division the same as he did Marine 



units, but admitted that General Westmoreland 
would not "let me move his Army divisions without 
there being a plan that he'd okayed."'* 

Command relations between the Korean Marine 
Brigade and the U.S. forces under General Cushman in 
I Corps were more complicated yet. Neither the III 
MAF commander nor his division commanders had 
operational control of the Koreans. The phrase "opera- 
tional guidance" supposedly defined the relationship 
between the Korean brigade and III MAF, but, accord- 
ing to Cushman, the term "meant absolutely nothing . 
. . They {the Koreans] didn't do a thing unless they felt 
like it." Major General Koster recalled that the Korean 
Brigade, while assigned to the Batangan Peninsula in 
the Americal Division area of operations, built large 
"solid compounds," but "seldom launched 'big opera- 
tions." When the Korean Marines began their deploy- 
ment to Da Nang, Brigadier General Kim Yun Sang, 
the Korean commander, agreed that the first battalion 
to arrive would receive "operational direction" from the 
U.S. 5th Marines until the rest of the brigade com- 
pleted the move. Yet, Major General Donn J. Robert- 
son, the 1st Marine Division commander, later 
observed that he "had no command control" over the 
Koreans and was "not sure how much the MAF com- 
mander had." According to Robertson, the Koreans 
operated very cautiously and he suspected that they 
were under orders through their own chain of com- 
mand "to keep casualties down. "- 

Although III MAF command arrangements with 
the South Vietnamese in I Corps were also complex, 
they were less awkward. As senior U.S. advisor in I 
Corps, General Cushman had more influence with 
General Lam, the South Vietnamese I Corps comman- 



*General Earl E. Anderson, who was the III MAF Chief of Staff at 
this time, emphasized that General Westmoreland, for example, 
"directed Cushman not to move the 3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Divi- 
sion without his support." Gen Earl E. Anderson, Comments on draft, 
dtd 18Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



84 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



85 




Department ot Defense (USMC) Photo Aj71 16t 
A Korean Marine lies in position with his Ml 6 with 
fixed bayonet at the ready during a cojubined operation 
with U.S. forces. HI MAF exercised an unsure command 
relationship with the 2d Korean Marine Brigade, which 
had moved up in January from the Chu Lai area to Hoi 
An in the Da Nang sector. 

der, than he had with the Koreans. Despite not having 
operational control of South Vietnamese units, the 
Marines under the guise of coordination and coopera- 
tion since 1965 had devised several informal working 
agreements with local units. As Cushman later 
declared: "General Lam and I got along well both per- 
sonally and socially ... we went through some battles 
together and that made for mutual respect."^ 

In the extensive and heavily populated Da Nang 
area of operations, the III MAF elaborate civic action 
and pacification campaign made for a very close rela- 
tionship with the South Vietnamese units in the sec- 
tor. The South Vietnamese Quang Da Special Zone 
command shared the Da Nang TAOR with the 1st 
Marine Division. Colonel Nguyen Duy Hinh, the 
Quang Da Special Zone commander, controlled both 
the 51st ARVN Regiment and the 59th Regional 
Force (RF) Battalion. While American advisors had 
doubts about the commanding officer of the 59th RF 
Battalion, they rated both Colonel Hinh and Colonel 
Truong Tan Thuc, the commanding officer of the 
5 1st, very highly. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel W. 
Ray Bradley, the senior advisor to the 5 1st, considered 
"Thuc as the most effective commander he had ever 
known." Bradley credited Thuc with "turning 
around" the 51st and responsible for much of the 
progress in the South Vietnamese Revolutionary 
Development Program in the Da Nang area. Accord- 
ing to Marine pacification standards, government 
forces controlled only 40 out of 112 villages in the 
TAOR but over 61 percent of the population. ^ 



The Americal Division relations with the ARVN 
2d Division in the southern two provinces of I Corps, 
Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, were more distant. As 
Major General Koster, the Americal Division com- 
mander, noted, the 2d ARVN Division "seldom 
worked with us — occasionally they would be brought 
in as a blocking [force}." Although General Cushman 
observed that Colonel Nguyen Van Toan, the acting 
division commander, was not as able a commander as 
General Truong of the 1st Division, Toan "was ade- 
quate." The III MAF commander suggested that 
Toan's talents were more political than military. ^ 

Perhaps the most unique connection between III 
MAF and the South Vietnamese authorities was the 
Combined Action Program (CAP). The program con- 
sisted of the attachment of the equivalent of a Marine 
infantry squad and its corpsman to a South Vietnamese 
Popular Forces platoon in a local hamlet or village. At 
the end of 1967, III MAF had 27 officers, 1,079 enlist- 
ed Marines, and 94 Navy corpsmen assigned to these 
units. They were organized into 3 Combined Action 
groups, 14 companies, and 79 platoons. Except for six 
in northern Quang Tri Province, the remaining 73 
Combined Action platoons were located in the other 
four provinces of I Corps.* 

Since the summer of 1967, the Combined Action 
Program came directly under III MAF rather than the 
individual divisions. As Director of the Combined 
Action Program, Lieutenant Colonel Byron F. Brady 
reported directly to Major General Raymond L. Mur- 
ray, the Deputy Commander, III MAF. Brady coordi- 
nated and loosely controlled each of the three Com- 
bined Action groups. He made liaison with the 
various Army, Korean, and Marine commanders for 
"fire support, reaction forces, patrols, and ambushes." 
At the group and company level, the Combined 
Action Program largely consisted of administrative 
and logistic support. The heart of the program, how- 
ever, was the individual Combined Action platoon, 
usually headed by a U.S. Marine sergeant and a Viet- 
namese Popular Forces platoon commander. Nominal- 
ly, the Marine sergeant was the advisor to the Viet- 
namese leader. In actuality, they often shared 
command responsibility, depending upon the person- 
al relationship between the two. Operational 1\-, the 
platoon came under the South Vietnamese district 
chief, but relied heavily on the U.S. or allied infantr)- 
battalion in its sector for fire support and reinforce- 



*See Chapter 29 tor a more detailed account of the Combined 
Action Program. 



86 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




^;s •.ii—i^^^-.tSi^ 





M^mss^^ 



Photo courtesy of Igor Bobrowsky 
Marines and South Vietnamese Regional Force troops of Combined Action Platoon D-1 patrol near 
the hamlet of Thanh Quit south of Da Nang. These platoons were the cutting edge of the Combined 
Action Program, which integrated a Marine squad with South Vietnamese militia (Popular or 
Regional Forces) in the surrounding villages and hamlets. 



ment. In many respects, these semi-isolated CAPs 
were the fronthne of the Marine war in the villages 
and hamlets, the target of nearly 40 percent of the 
enemy attacks in I Corps in November and December 
1967. They were among the first to indicate an enemy 
buildup in the Da Nang and Phu Loc sectors/^ 

By the end of 1967, the allies in I Corps had devel- 
oped a rather sophisticated analysis apparatus for the 
collection and processing of local intelligence. The 
core of this collection effort was the District Opera- 
tions and Intelligence Center (DOIC). Each center 
consisted of representatives from the South Viet- 
namese district-level government structure including 
the ARVN district S-2 officer, National Police, and 
Revolutionary Development cadre. A U.S. MACV/III 
MAP liaison team provided technical expertise. The 
establishment of 14 such centers since August per- 
mitted the analysis and supposedly rapid dissemina- 
tion of time-sensitive intelligence to those South Viet- 
namese and allied civilian agencies and military units 
and agencies able to take action. For example, in 
November 1967, the Dien Ban center provided infor- 
mation to the National Police that led to the arrest of 



64 members of the VC Hoi An infrastructure and the 
capture of significant enemy planning documents."* 

From various sources. III JVLAF received reports in 
December 1 967 that the enemy was massing his forces 
in I Corps. There was the buildup of enemy forces at 
Khe Sanh and the eastern DMZ. In the CoBi-Thanh 
Tan region the 4th Marines and South Vietnamese 
sources reported the southeastward movement of ele- 
ments of the 6th NWA Regiment and the appearance of a 
new regiment, the 4th NVA^ in the Phu Loc sector 
south of Phu Bai. Of even more concern to the 1st 
Marine Division and the Americal Division was the 
forward deployment of the 2dN\/A Division north into 



*Lieutenant Colonel Oliver W. van den Berg, Jr., who command- 
ed the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Da Nang in November 1967, 
remembered that a sniper team attached to his Company A "killed a 
VC courier and his armed escort at 700 meters." According to van den 
Berg, the courier carried a large bag of documents "which included a 
pay roster and many other documents." Lieutenant Colonel van den 
Berg wrote that all of this was turned over to intelligence personnel 
and may have been the source of information for the National Police 
arrest of the 64 members of the VC Hoi An infrastructure. LtCol Oliv- 
er W. van den Berg, Jr., Comments on draft, dtd 12Dec94 (Vietnam 
Comment File). 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



87 



both the Que Son Valley and the Da Nang TAOR. 
Allied commanders also learned that the North Viet- 
namese established a new headquarters in the Quang 
Da Special Zone in Quang Nam Province called Group 
44. Commanded by North Vietnamese Army Senior 
Colonel Vo Thu, the former commander of the 3dNVA 
Division, Group 44 located its headquarters in the 
mountains of Dai Loc District, about 24 miles south- 
west of Da Nang. According to a captured enemy offi- 
cer, the new command was a subordinate or forward 
headquarters of Military Region 3 and now controlled 
all independent enemy regiments, battalions, and sep- 
arate units in the Quang Nam sector.^ 

Since September 1967, III MAF suspected that the 
enemy planned a large-scale offensive in the Da Nang 
area. At that time, according to U.S. intelligence offi- 
cers, "a very reliable source" reported detailed enemy 
plans for Quang Nam Province with "Da Nang as the 
ultimate object." The appearance of new units includ- 
ing the enemy 31st NVA Regiment in southwestern 
Quang Nam and the establishment of Group 44 tend- 
ed to corroborate the first report. In early December, 
the allies uncovered further evidence that the 2d NVA 
Division was about to escalate its operations in the Que 
Son sector and reinforce the independent units and 
local forces in Quang Nam Province.' 

On 5 December, helicopters and troops of the U.S. 
3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division under the oper- 
ational control of the Americal Division in Operation 
Wheeler/Wallowa killed 17 North Vietnamese 
troops in a skirmish on a ridgeline north of the town 
of Que Son. In an examination of the enemy bodies, 
the Americans discovered four were dressed in Amer- 
ican camouflaged fatigues while the remaining dead 
wore North Vietnamese uniforms. Four of the North 
Vietnamese were officers, including the political offi- 
cer of the 2d NVA Division. Among the various doc- 
uments strewn about were several notebooks and var- 
ious American maps. In a notebook marked 
"Absolutely Secret," American intelligence analysts 
found a plan for a division-size assault against Amer- 
ican fire bases in the Que Son Valley, complete with 
sketches of the targeted sites. The general attack 
would involve all three regiments of the 2d NVA and 
would be coordinated with smaller diversionary 
attacks against district capitals controlled by Group 
44. The diversions included a rocket bombardment of 
the large Da Nang Airbase.i" 

Lieutenant Colonel John F. J. Kelly, a member of 
the III MAF staff, recalled that all of this intelligence 
began to fit a pattern. According to Kelly, the 




Photo courtesy of LtCol John F.J. Kelly, USMC (Ret) 
LtCol John F. J. Kelly is pictured with a captured NVA 
122mm rocket launcher which had a range of about 12,000 
meters. According to LtCol Kelly, this was the first 122mm 
launcher captured by Marine forces, a direct result of Oper- 
ation Claxon in December 1967 to lure enemy units into a 
premature attack on Da Nang. 

Marine command had "very precise information of 
his {the enemy} plans in the Da Nang TAOR" and 
called several commanders' conferences to determine 
how best to deflect the Communist intents. Accord- 
ing to the enemy documents recovered by the 1st 
Cavalry Division brigade, the enemy was to begin 
his offensive on 23 December. Lieutenant Colonel 
Kelly later related that III MAF hoped to confound 
the enemy by triggering his attack prematurely. In 
an operation codenamed Claxon, the Marines set off 
explosive charges throughout the Da Nang TAOR 
that they wanted the VC forces to mistake tor the 
signal to start the offensive. The enemy reffised to 
take the bait, however, and the 2d NVA Division, on 
the 23d, also failed to attack the 3d Brigade's fire 
bases in the Wheeler/Wallowa sector. In the Que Son 
Valley, American intelligence officers concluded that 
the loss of the documents may have caused the NVA 
to believe their plans were compromised and to post- 
pone, if not cancel, the attacks against the Army's 3d 
Brigade. At Da Nang, however, III MAF still expect- 
ed some sort of offensive against the populated cen- 
ters in the TAOR."' 



*Lieutenant Colonel Kelly observed that although the attack 
failed to matetialize, some enemy rocket troops failed to get the 
word and "tried to rush forward to firing sites . . . ." They were 
intercepted by Marines and "the first enemy 122mm launcher was 
captured." LtCol John F. J. Kelly, Comments on draft, dtd l.'>Dec94 
(Vietnam Comment File). 



88 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



The Da Naiig TAOR 

In January 1968 at Da Nang, the 1st Marine 
Division commander, Major General Donn J. 
Robertson, had only two of his three infantry regi- 
ments, the 5th and 7th Marines, under his opera- 
tional control. A tall, courtly officer who had a var- 
ied Marine Corps career ranging from an infantry 
battalion commander on Iwo Jima, where he earned 
the Navy Cross, to Deputy for Fiscal Matters at 
Marine Corps Headquarters, General Robertson took 
over the division the previous June. Now, with the 
pending additional responsibility lor the Phu Bai 
sector and the anticipated departure of the 5 th 
Marines from Da Nang to Phu Bai, Robertson 
assumed an even more onerous burden. The previous 
record of the Korean brigade provided little promise 
that It would fill the holes in the Da Nang defenses 
when the 5th Marines relocated to Phu Bai. Thus, at 
Da Nang, the division entered the new year with an 



expanding mission and diminishing forces with the 
probability of encountering an even stronger 
enemy. '- 

The Da Nang tactical area ol responsibility 
(TAOR) stretched from the Hai Van Pass in the 
north to the Quang Nam-Quang Tin border to the 
south. From east to west the TAOR extended from 
the coast to the Annamite Mountain chain. Consist- 
ing of 1,048 square miles, the area contained a pop- 
ulation of some 812,000 persons, not including the 
city of Da Nang. Several large waterways, the Cau 
Do, the Vinh Dien, the Yen, the Thu Bon, the Thanh 
Quit, the Ky Lam, the Dien Ban among them, tra- 
versed the coastal plain south of Da Nang and spilled 
into the South China Sea, often changing their name 
along the way. With the resulting rich soil deposits, 
the Da Nang region was one of the major rice pro- 
ducing areas in South Vietnam, second only to the 
Mekong Delta. 



1ST MARINE DIVISION 

AREA OF 

OPERATIONS DA NANG 

JANUARY 1968 




Kilometers L. 



10 






^f 



LEGEND 

NSDC = NORTHERN SECTOR 
DEFENSE COMMAND 

SSDC = SOUTHERN SECTOR 
DEFENSE COMMAND 

ROK = REPUBLIC OF KOREA 

FSB = FIRE SUPPORT BASE 

LZ = LANDING ZONE 




THANG T1Q9-6.S7J 
BINH.S-/ '-Ti- 

iVso,(5'UU£ SON *--~?\\.'^^ 

: - O FSB 
ROSS 






^ HIEP 
" DUG 



■^j-^'<.^:^~.^^c 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



89 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo ASUl 13- 
An aerial view of the Marble Mountain Air Facility and base on Tiensha Peninsula across the river 
from the main airbase at Da Nang, which can be seen vaguely in the background to the right. Mar- 
ble Mountain was home to the helicopters of Marine aircraft group based there. 



In order to secure the approaches to the city and 
the nearby Da Nang Airbase, the 1st Marine Divi- 
sion had divided the sector into several defensive 
zones and tactical areas of operation. The city 
itself, the Da Nang Airbase, and the Marble 
Mountain helicopter facility on the Tiensha Penin- 
sula across the Han River from Da Nang and the 
main air base constituted the Da Nang Vital Area. 
In the immediate area west of the city and the air- 
base, the Marines had established two defensive 
command sectors, the northern and southern. 
Under the operational control of the 1 1th Marines, 
the division artillery regiment, the Northern Sec- 
tor Defense Command (NSDC), composed ot 



troops from various headquarters and support 
units, encompassed the division command post on 
Hill 327 (called Division Ridge), the northern 
artillery cantonment, and the Force Logistic Com- 
mand on Red Beach. Bounded by the Cu De River 
on the north and the Southern Sector Defense 
Command (SSDC) on the south, a distance of some 
10 kilometers, the northern sector command in 
cooperation with its tenant units manned the fixed 
defenses and ran patrols in the surrounding pad- 
dies, scrub brush, and low-lying hills to the west. 
Similarly, the Southern Sector Defense Command, 
under the operational control o\ the 1st Tank Bat- 
talion, covered the southern and southwestern 



90 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



approaches to the Da Nang Airbase and protected 
the vital bridges across the Cau Do and Tuy Loan 
Rivers, south ot the airbase/ 

The two Marine infantry regiments, the 5th and 
7th Marines, and the 3d Amphibian Tractor Bat- 
talion were responsible for the protection of the 
regions south of the Cau Do and north of the Cu De 
Rivers. On the division left, or most eastern sector, 
the amphibian tractor battalion patrolled the sand 
flats along the coast south of the Marble Mountain 
facility. South and west of the "amtrackers" and 
north of the Thanh Quit River, the 5th Marines 
with two battalions, the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines 
and the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, maintained its 
area of operations. With the north-south railroad 
track serving as the boundary between the two reg- 
iments, the 7th Marines with all three of its battal- 
ions provided the shield in the western and north- 
ern reaches of the division area of operations. The 
2d Battalion, 5th Marines, under the direct control 
of the division, operated in the An Hoa sector, 
located in the southwest corner of the division 
TAOR south of the Thu Bon River. To the east of 
the 7th Marines and south of the 5th Marines, the 
Korean Marine Brigade began its deployment into 
the Dai Loc corridor between the Thanh Quit and 
the Ky Lam. 

With the introduction oi enemy long-range 
l40mm and 122mm rockets in February and June 
respectively of the previous year against the Da 
Nang base, the Marine division took several coun- 
termeasures. It established a rocket belt that extend- 
ed 8,000 to 12,000 meters out from the Da Nang 
Vital Area, the effective range of the enemy rockets. 
Within this circumference, the 11th Marines insti- 
tuted a central control system which included the 
coverage by two artillery firing batteries of each part 
of the Da Nang TAOR and the strategic placement 
of artillery observation posts in the rocket belt. The 
infantry intensified its patrols and allied aircraft 
increased their observation flights into and over the 
approaches towards the most likely rocket-firing 
positions. At the same time, the Marines imposed 
an 1800 to 0600 daily curfew on river and other 



waterway traffic in the rocket belt area. Division 
psychological operations teams, moreover, devel- 
oped an extensive campaign among the local vil- 
lagers including money awards for information on 
the enemy rockets.''** 

Despite all these efforts, the NVA rocket threat 
remained real. Unlike tube artillery, the rockets did 
not require a great deal of maintenance and they 
could be man-packed through the difficult terrain 
of western Quang Nam. Rocket launchers were 
considerably smaller than howitzers of a compara- 
ble caliber, and were thus much easier to conceal 
from U.S. air observers or reconnaissance patrols. 
Although mortars shared with rockets these traits 
of ease of maintenance, transportation, and conceal- 
ment, the rockets had much greater range: the 
122mm rocket could fire 12,000 meters, while the 
l40mm variety had a range of 8,900 meters. The 
120mm mortar, on the other hand, could fire only 
5,700 meters. Well-trained crews could assemble, 
aim, and launch their rockets in less than 30 min- 
utes. In one attack on the Da Nang airfield, six 
enemy rocket teams fired 50 rounds within five 
minutes. With a few glaring exceptions, most of 
the enemy rocket attacks resulted in relatively lit- 
tle damage and few casualties. As Major General 
Raymond L. Murray, the deputy III MAF comman- 
der, observed, however, "it {the enemy rocket capa- 
bility] was constantly on everyone's mind . . . ." 
With a relatively minor investment in men and 



* Lieutenant Colonel Vincent J. Gentile, who commanded the 1st Tank 
Baccalion at the time, recalled that most of his tank units were under the 
operational control of various infentry units. As commander of the South- 
ern Sector, he controlled "a group of support unit headquarters elements 
south of Da Nang." As he remembered, "my impression is that we had 
more alerts than significant enemy activity' in the SSDC. ' LtCol Vincent J. 
Gentile, Ojmments on draft, dtd 25Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



** Colonel John F. Barr, who served with the 11th Marines and the 
1st Field Artillery Group in 1967—68, observed that "rockets are still 
the least expensive and most effective indirect fire weapon that a non- 
mdustrial society can use." He stated that to counter the threat, the 1st 
Marine Division established "an ad hoc 'Rocket investigation Team,"' 
to gather intelligence on enemy rocket tactics. This team consisted of 
a representative of the G— 2 or intelligence section, an artillery officer, 
a demolition man, a photographer, and a security team provided by the 
1st Reconnaissance Battalion. At first light, after a rocket was 
launched, the team would embark in a helicopter and would locate the 
firing site from the air using coordinates provided by the 11th 
Marines. The team would then land and "e.xplore the site in detail." It 
would blow any rockets left behind in place and take back any intelli- 
gence it was able to garner about rocket tactics and firing sites. By var- 
ious countermeasures, the Marines reduced the amount of time that the 
enemy gunners had to mount their attack. Colonel Barr commented 
that by late 1967, "every gun in the 1 1th Marine Regiment, when not 
engaged in firing was pointed at a possible rocket firing site .... The 
idea was to get as many rounds in the air as soon as possible in order 
to disrupt rocket firing in progress." Using a combination of visual 
sightings and sound azimuths, the Marine gunners would try to iden- 
tify "approximate site locations through map triangulation. " Col John 
F. Barr, Comments on draft, dtd 260ct94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



91 



equipment, the NVA could keep an entire Marine 
division occupied. •"*• 

For the most part, the 1st Marine Division war in 
the Da Nang TAOR was a small-unit war. The nature 
of the war and the terrain in the area were such that the 
most effective form of military action was usually the 
small-unit patrol or ambush, carried out by a squad or 
fire team. As a consequence, in 1967, more than 50 
percent of division casualties resulted from enemy 
mines and boobytraps, officially called surprise firing 
devices (SFD). General Robertson, the division com- 
mander, called it a "vicious" type of combat which 
inflicted the most cruel type of wounds, ranging from 
blindness to multiple loss of limbs. The enemy exploit- 
ed anything on hand to make these devices, from dis- 
carded ration cans to spent artillery shells, "any time 
they could get powder, they used it." Operating 
against an unknown and often unseen enemy in an 
unfamiliar environment among largely a hostile or at 
best neutral rural populace, the Marines of the 1st 
Division fought an unspectacular and difficult war. As 
Lieutenant General Cushman, the III MAT comman- 
der, commented, the Marines at Da Nang "had a lot of 
slogging to do, a lot of patrolling to do . . . And their 
casualties from mines were considerable as a result. "'5 

Through 1967, the enemy in the Da Nang area of 
operations consisted for the most part of the VC infra- 
structure and the local guerrillas in the surrounding 
villages and hamlets. There was no clear distinction 
between friend and foe. The innocent appearing farmer 
in his field, or his wife or child for that matter, could 
easily be a VC agent or even terrorist. According to 
Marine estimates at the beginning of 1968, enemy 
irregular or local force strength in the Da Nang area 
was about 17,500, but only 4,000 of this number were 
"flill-time guerrillas." The remaining members of the 
irregular classification belonged to either Communist 
local "Self-Defense or Secret Self-Defense forces." For 
the Marine on patrol, however, it made little difference 
if the enemy who shot or threw a grenade at him was a 
full-time guerrilla or belonged to the local defense 
forces. Too often the results were the same."" 



* Colonel William J. Davis, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 
7th Marines at this time, observed that the 122mm rocket was most 
accurate when fired with a tripod and launcher, but that the VC had 
fired both weapons without tripod or launcher by leaning them against 
inclined dirt banks, facing the airbase, and then set off. Col W. J. 
Davis, Tet Marine. An Autobiography (San Diego, CA, 1987), pp. 42-48, 
End to Col William J. Davis, Comments on draft, dtd 2Dec94 (Viet- 
nam Comment File), hereafter Davis, Tet Aliiriiie. 



Operation Auburn: Searching the Go Noi 

The appearance of the North Vietnamese units 
near Da Nang and the formation of Group 44 added 
another dimension to the danger that the enemy 
posed to the airbase and the city of Da Nang. Marine 
intelligence suspected and later confirmed that the 
North Vietnamese 31sf Regiment, also known as the 
Red River Regiment, with all three battalions, had 
moved in December into the Dai Loc sector in the 
southwestern reaches of the Da Nang TAOR. 
Although the 2d NVA Division with its three regi- 
ments continued to challenge the U.S. 1st Air Caval- 
ry's 3d Brigade in the Que Son Valley, it had the 
potential to move north through the Que Sons to 
reinforce the enemy forces in the Da Nang area of 
operations. The NVA 368B Artillery Regiment, con- 
sisting of four independent battalions and five inde- 
pendent companies, armed with the 122mm and 
I40mm rockets, presumably operating from secret 
bases in "Happy Valley," some 15 miles southwest of 
Da Nang, in the far western confines of the division 
operating area, remained a constant irritant to the 
Marine defenders. Even with the greater strength of 
the Communist forces around Da Nang, General 
Robertson, the 1st Marine Division commander, later 
maintained: "Ours was a small war, and divisions 
aren't small, even NVA divisions, but I never had the 
feeling that we were going to get pushed around or 
pushed out."i^** 

At the same time, however, the VC local force bat- 
talions in the Da Nang area also became more active. 
Two enemy local battalions, the V-25th and the 
R-20th, had long operated in the Da Nang area. In 
fact, the R—20 or Doc Lap Battalion, as early as Septem- 
ber, 1965, launched one of the first enemy attacks 
against a Marine battalion command post on Hill 22 
near the Yen River. By December 1967, agent reports 
located both battalions on the so-called Go Noi Island, 
about 25 kilometers south of the airbase near the 
demarcation between the Marine division and the 
Americal Division. According to Marine intelligence 
officers, the enemy in the Da Nang sector during early 
1968 would continue to harass the South Vietnamese 
Revolutionary Development program in the Da Nang 



** Brigadier General Paul G. Graham, who was the 1st Marine Divi- 
sion operations officer or G-3 during this period, reiterated in his com- 
ments that the war around Da Nang "was strictly a guerrilla war" and 
that enemy activity "was invariably hit and run tactics by small ambush 
or rocket firing units." BGen Paul G. Grah.im, Comments on draft, dtd 
20Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File), hert-atter Graham Comments. 



92 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



sector, would conduct attacks by fire including rockets 
at U.S. and South Vietnamese major installations, and 
possibly would strike against isolated friendly forces 
and installations.''* 

In order to preempt any such concentration of the 
enemy local and main force units, the 5th Marines at 
the end ot December initiated a spoiling action, code- 
named Operation Auburn, on Go Noi Island. Located 
10 kilometers inland from the South China Sea, the 
Go Noi is not a true island, but is simply an area 
bounded on all sides by rivers. Irregularly shaped by 
the meandering of the Ky Lam, the Thu Bon, the Ba 
Ren, the Dien Ban, and the Cau Lau rivers, the 
"island" is 12 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide 
with generally flat terrain that gradually slopes 
upward towards the western end. A few streams and 
canals cut across the low-lying land and the remains of 
the wrecked National Railroad tracks (known to the 
Marines as the "B&O") bisected the island. A number 
of small hamlets and villages dotted the area, mostly 
inhabited by women and children, the men having 
gone to war, either lor the government or lor the Com- 
munists. Hedges and bamboo thickets literally 
formed walls around these rural communities. The 
terrain between the hamlets varied, and included 
untended rice paddies overgrown with vegetation, 
open sandy areas, high elephant grass, and cemeteries 
with tall grave mounds. Most of the hamlets con- 
tained "a network of drainage ditches" to carry off the 
surplus waters. These ditches, as one Marine battalion 
commander observed, "provided superb, ready-made 
fighting trenches," for any VC "fighting a maneuver 
defense." With rules of engagement that limited the 
use of supporting arms in populated areas, any Marine 
penetration of the Go Noi "presented commanders 
with extremely difficult decisions."''' 

The preparations to move into the Go Noi began 
on Christmas Day, 1967. At that time, Colonel 
Robert D. Bohn, the 5th Marines commander, issued 
his "Frag Order" detailing the participating units and 
the concept of operations for Auburn. The Marine ini- 
tial forces were to consist of four infantry companies, 
two from tiie 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, one from the 
2d Battalion, 3d Marines, and one from the 3d Bat- 
talion, 5th Marines. Another company from the 3d 
Battalion was to be in reserve. Lieutenant Colonel 
William K. Rockey, the commanding officer of the 3d 
Battalion, 5th Marines, would command the forces in 
the field and assume operational control of the other 
infantry companies. The 1 1th Marines provided gen- 
eral artillery support with one battalion, the 2d Bat- 



talion, 11th Marines in direct support. Marine heli- 
copters from MAG- 16 would bring the assault forces 
into the landing zones and Marine helicopter gunships 
and fixed-wing aircraft from both Da Nang and Chu 
Lai would fly landing-zone-preparation and close air 
support missions.-" 

Auburn was to be part of a larger operation involv- 
ing both the ARVN Quang Da Special Zone command 
and the Americal Division. The Marine units were to 
establish blocking positions along the abandoned rail- 
road track. After the Marines were in position, three 
ARVN battalions starting from Route 1 would then 
attack from east to west along Route 537, pushing any 
enemy units into the Marines. Further south, the 1st 
Air Cavalry's 3d Brigade in Operation Wheeler/Wal- 
lowa would position two companies from its 1st Bat- 
talion, 7th Infantry to close any avenue of escape in that 
direction and also to prevent the enemy from reinforc- 
ing his forces in the Go Noi. Operation Auburn was 
slated to begin at 0900 on 28 December when Marine 
helicopters were to bring Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d 
Marines into Landing Zone Hawk, an abandoned 
dried-up rice paddy, just east of the railroad and about 
a 1,000 meters south of the Ky Lam River.-' 

After an hour landing zone preparation bombard- 
ment by both Marine air and artillery, at 0904, four 
minutes later than the designated "L— Hour," the first 
wave of MAG— 16 helicopters dropped down into 
Landing Zone Hawk. The troops of the lead assault 
company. Company E, 3d Marines, commanded by 
Australian Army Captain Ian J. Cahill, an eight-year 
veteran and an exchange officer serving with the 
Marines, referred to themselves as the "Diggers" after 
the popular nickname for Australian soldiers. Greeted 
by desultory enemy rifle and automatic weapons fire, 
the "Diggers" of Company E quickly secured the land- 
ing zone but failed to silence the enemy snipers and 
gunners. At 0940, the forward elements of the compa- 
ny attempted to advance toward its first objective, a 
deserted hamlet in the Bao An Dong village complex, 
just to the southwest of LZ Hawk. Forced to pull back 
in the face of heavy Communist small arms fire. Cap- 
tain Cahill called for an airstrike. Following the strike, 
succeeding waves of Marine CH-46 Sea Knight heli- 
copters brought in the remaining elements of Compa- 
ny E and Company I, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, and 
Lieutenant Colonel Rockey s command group into the 
landing zone. According to Lieutenant Colonel Rock- 
ey, the enemy fire forced the Marines to move the land- 
ing zone progressively westward, "with each helicopter 
wave landing a little farther west than the last wave. "22 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



93 






- "i 




\^, 















^■*('« 






''%.-*^-^ 



t^« 



<^ 




^- .■ 'MM 



^ ft 



Abel Collection Photos 
Marines from Company I. 3d Battalion. 3 th Marines take part in Operation Auburn in the Go Noi 
Island sector south of Da Nang. In the top photo, PFC Richard C. Spaniel, wearing "In God We 
Trust" on his helmet, peers cautiously through thick brush for signs of enemy troops. Below, two other 
Marines from Company I watch an air strike on enemy positions to their front in the same operation. 




94 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



With both Marine companies and the battahon 
command group in the landing zone by 1130, the 
Marines again tried to take their first two objectives. 
Company I secured its objective, an abandoned 
hamlet to the immediate firont without encounter- 
ing any serious resistance. In the second objective, 
the same hamlet Cahill's Company E had tried to 
take earlier, the Marine company was again in trou- 
ble. The seemingly innocent empty "ville" was in 
actuality heavily fortified with interconnecting 
trenches and fighting holes that provided the Com- 
munists with fixed fields of fire. In a sudden 
ambush, the enemy killed five Marines of Company 
E and wounded another nine. As the "Diggers" lit- 
erally dug in and fought for their lives. Lieutenant 
Colonel Rockey ordered Company I to move to the 
flank of Company E. Taking advantage of the cover 
afforded by the tall elephant grass that had over- 
grown the uncultivated paddy field and five-foot- 
high burial mounds,* other Communist troops pre- 
vented the Company I Marines from reaching the 
embattled company.-'' 

At this point, with both of his forward companies 
unable to maneuver. Lieutenant Colonel Rockey 
asked for his reserve or "Bald Eagle" company. Com- 
pany M, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. Concurrently, he 
again called for both artillery and fixed-wing support. 
During the day, Marine fixed-wing and helicopter 
gunship aircraft flew close to 50 missions in support 
of the Marine battalion. Many of the 11th Marines 
artillery rounds fell dangerously close to the Compa- 
ny E positions, with shell fragments wounding sever- 
al Marines. According to the battalion commander, 
"this was a calculated risk dictated by the situation." 
Lieutenant Colonel Rockey was more disturbed about 
the numerous "check fires" placed on the artillery 
whenever an aircraft left the runway at Da Nang and 
maintained until the plane returned. He later wrote 
in his after action report: "unnecessary check fires 
imposed on direct support artillery on D-Day was 
and is a matter of great concern. Vitally required fire 



* Lieutenant Colonel Gene W. Bowers, who at the time served as 
the S— 3 or operations officers of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, 
remarked that these "graves were much bigger and higher than tradi- 
tional Vietnamese graves, as they had to be built up to accommodate 
the very high water table." He remembered that the enemy troops "had 
dug into the graves, evicting the previous occupants, and converted 
them into mutually supporting bunkers which were seemingly imper- 
vious to horizontal small arms fire." LtCol Gene W. Bowers, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 30May95 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter 
Bowers Comments. 



support was needlessly withheld from the Battalion 
because of this imposition."--' 

At 1530, CH-46s from HMM-265 brought in 
Company M into Landing Zone Hawk. As in the 
arrival of the other two companies, enemy gunners 
took the hovering aircraft and disembarking troops 
under fire. Company M Marine Private First Class 
Jesse T. Lucero, on the lead helicopter, recalled that 
as he jumped out an enemy sniper round struck his 
helmet: "I got a little dizzy and sagged, but anoth- 
er Marine helped me up and I ran across the rice 
paddy as fast as my feet could carry me." The lead 
elements then cleared a treeline and secured the 
landing zone. Together with the battalion com- 
mand group. Company M moved forward to relieve 
Company E.-5 

In the hamlet, after the initial shock of combat, 
and with the support of air and artillery, the Marines 
of Company E held their own. Able to get in closer 
and more accurately than both fixed-wing aircraft 
and the artillery, UH-IE gunships from VMO— 2 
provided several strafing runs that prevented the 
enemy troops from overrunning the company's posi- 
tions.** For example, one Huey aircraft spent five 
hours in support of the Marine infantrymen. Its 
machine gunner. Lance Corporal Stephen R. Parsons, 
earned the nickname of "Sureshot." Credited with 
killing 15 enemy, Parsons later stated, "I knew I got 
at least seven." The aircraft itself sustained four hits 
and Parsons was wounded in the face. An enemy .30- 
caliber bullet had "entered his left cheek and exited 
at the roof of his mouth without breaking a tooth." 
About 1700, an air observer counted in front of the 
Company E positions 32 NVA dead, mostly clad "in 
green utilities. "-'^ 

About an hour later, under covering fire from 
the other two Marine companies. Company E 
pulled back a few hundred meters to the positions 
of Company M. Collocated with the battalion com- 
mand group just forward of Landing Zone Hawk, 
both Companies E and M established their night 
defenses. Only about 200 meters separated the two 
companies from Company I. Unable to reach its 
dead, Company E in its withdrawal had left the 
bodies of nine Marines in the hamlet. All told, the 



** Lieutenant Colonel Bowers recalled after talking with Captain 
Cahill on the radio about the graveyard bunkers: "I instructed the gun- 
ships to shoot their door-mounted machine guns straight down into 
the grave mounds to achieve penetration." He credits this tactic with 
reducing the effectiveness of the enemy fire. Bowers Comments. 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



95 



3d Battalion sustained casualties of 19 dead and 25 
wounded.-'^ 

Not sure about the size and composition of the 
enemy forces, Colonel Bohn, the 5th Marines com- 
mander, that night secured permission to expand the 
operation. He obtained operational control from 
General Robertson of a command group from the 2d 
Battalion, 5th Marines. Bohn ordered Lieutenant 
Colonel Robert J. McNaughton, the battalion com- 
mander of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, to resume 
command of his Companies E and G, which were 
already in helicopter staging areas for Operation 
Auburn, and reinforce the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines 
in LZ Hawk. At the same time, Bohn and a 5 th 
Marines command group would also move to LZ 
Hawk to assume overall direction of the now two- 
battalion Operation Auburn. ^s 

Marine intelligence officers believed that a North 
Vietnamese Battalion had reinforced the local VC bat- 
talions in the Go Noi. A III MAP intelligence esti- 
mate showed the battalion, possibly the 190th NVA, 
also known as the 311th NVA or Quang Da Battalion. 
had infiltrated into central I Corps from North Viet- 
nam the previous April and was equipped with crew- 
served weapons. 2y 

According to the Marine plan, the 2d Battalion, 
5 th Marines with two of its companies was to land 
in LZ Hawk on the morning of 29 December, fol- 
lowed by the 5th Marines command group. In the 
meantime, the three companies already in Auburn 
would secure Objective 1, the abandoned hamlet 
that Company I had seized the previous day before 
moving to assist Company E. After the 3d Battalion 
had accomplished its mission and provided flank 
protection, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines would 
attack towards the Bao An Dong hamlet where 
Company E, 3d Marines had engaged the enemy on 
the first day.^" 

The operation on the 29th went much as planned 
with relatively light resistance from the enemy. The 
3d Battalion, 5th Marines seized its objective without 
opposition. After its arrival in Landing Zone Hawk, 
shortly after 1000, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines 
advanced with its Company E in the lead and Com- 
pany G on the right flank and slightly in trace. An 
enemy rear guard of about 20 men in well-camou- 
flaged fighting holes fought the Marines at the edge 
of the hamlet, but immediately disengaged 10 min- 
utes later after Marine air and artillery pounded the 
enemy positions. In his account of Operation 
Auburn, the 2d Battalion commander observed that 



"realizing that fortified villages would be encoun- 
tered, artillery and fixed wing air strikes were used to 
the maximum. Key to the success of the supporting 
arms was the unit commanders' ability to move under 
the outstanding coverage provided."" 

Shortly after noon, the two Marine companies 
began their search of the hamlet. They detained two 
suspicious Vietnamese clad in the usual black paja- 
mas and recovered the bodies of the nine Marines 
killed in the earlier fighting. About 1330, as the bat- 
talion command group approached, VC snipers once 
more opened up on the American troops, wounding 
one Marine. The Marines returned the fire and 
searched the suspected area, but the enemy had 
departed. After another reconnaissance of the hamlet 
with no further evidence of the enemy, the battalion 
returned to Landing Zone Hawk. The results of the 
day's action for the battalion were two VC suspects 
and an estimated six enemy dead, at a cost of two 
Marine wounded and evacuated. 52* 

At this juncture, Colonel Bohn expected the opera- 
tion to come to an end. The South Vietnamese had 
encountered few enemy forces in their sector and want- 
ed to release their units. General Robertson, the 1st 
Marine Division commander, had already informed III 
MAE and the 5th Marines commanders that he intend- 
ed "to terminate" Auburn at noon on the 30th "barring 
any unforseen developments." New information, how- 
ever, caused Robertson to change his mind. About 
1000 on the 30th, he radioed Colonel Bohn, "Opera- 
tion Auburn will continue on reduced scale until fur- 
ther notice." General Robertson declared that "intelli- 
gence indicates continuing enemy presence in 
northwest Auburn AO {area of operations}." The mes- 



* Colonel Rockey, the 3d Battalion commander, recalled that he a 
few days later received a message about an article in the Washington 
Star newspaper on 31 December 1967 about the operation in the Go 
Noi. The reporter described the desolation of the hamlets destroyed 
by air and supporting arms. The article mentioned "little fires were 
still burning" and Marines yelling at old women and children coming 
out of their shelters. It quoted one Marine saying "we should have 
killed them all." The article does admit, however, that the Marines 
had "temporarily driven out the enemy including one Main Force VC 
and one North Vietnamese battalion, but not certain what else they 
had accomplished." According to Colonel Rockey, the message origi- 
nated in Washington and that he had about 30 minutes to get an 
answer back to headquarters about the accuracy of the article: "Mind 
you, this was in the middle of the night, in the field, during actual 
action against the enemy." Col William K. Rockey, Comments on 
draft, dtd 4Mar95 and attached msg, n.d., reference to 3IDec67. 
Washington Star. Lieutenant Colonel Bowers recalled that the search ot 
the hamlet uncovered an underground storage area containing med- 
ical supplies, rifies, and rice. Bowers Comments. 



96 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Oiaol 
bongos). 






.Oorvg (2) 



Loc 
Thuar 



Bau Tay (4) ' ^ < 

-\ — n ■ ■ r — * 



OPERATION AUBURN 

GO NOI ISLAND 

DECEMBER 1967-JANUARY 1968 



500 1000 



2000 



3000 



Meters 



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HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



97 



sage did not reveal whether the suspected enemy was 
the 190th Battalion or another enemy force. Colonel 
Bohn in his implementing order only stated "high 
order intelligence indicates very important enemy unit 
between Liberty Bridge* and present Auburn AO."53 

Despite the indication of new intelligence, the 
remainder of the operation was to be a fruitless search 
for the phantomi unit. On the 31st, both Lieutenant 
Colonel McNaughton, the 2d Battalion commander, 
and Colonel Bohn, the regimental commander, 
returned to their respective command posts leaving 
Lieutenant Colonel Rockey, the 3d Battalion com- 
mander, solely responsible for the operation. Rockey 
retained both the 2d Battalion's Company E and G, 
as well as Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines and 
Company M of his own battalion in the next phase of 
the operation. For the next four days, the four com- 
panies encountered only scattered sniper fire and 
grenades as they extended the Auburn area of opera- 
tions to the west. By 3 January 1968, the battalion 
reached the hamlet of Phu Loc 6, about 7,500 meters 
west of the "B&O," and just south of Liberty Bridge. 
Companies E and G, 5th Marines reverted to 2d Bat- 
talion control and Company E, 3d Marines departed 
Auburn for its original area of operations. At 1725 on 
that date. Lieutenant Colonel Rockey closed out the 
operation and his forward command group and Com- 
pany M clambered on board trucks for the return trip 
to the battalion command post. J' 

For the entire operation, the two Marine battal- 
ions sustained casualties of 23 killed in action and 
over 60 wounded and, according to Marine body 
count, killed 37 of the enemy. With the exception 
of four of the Marines and five of the enemy, the 
deaths in Auburn occurred on the first day of the 
operation. The action on the 28th also accounted 
for nearly half of the Marine wounded. In the 
remaining six days of the operation, enemy snipers, 
a casually thrown grenade, and the ever-present 
"surprise firing device " were responsible for the 
remaining Marine casualties. "^^ 

Although Lieutenant Colonel Rockey s battalion 
in the extended phase of Operation Auburn met no 
significant enemy force, he observed "large enemy 
forces could evade our search and destroy efforts, 
concealed in the vast expanses of elephant grass in 
some cases reaching 12 feet in height." Rockey 



believed that given the abundant "luxuriant natural 
cover and concealment" available to the enemy and 
the extensive area covered, the Marines required a 
larger force to conduct the operation. No allied 
order of battle in early 1968 showed the 190th NVA 
Battalion in the Da Nang area of operations. Intelli- 
gence would indicate that the Group 44 headquar- 
ters later moved into Go Noi Island. This may have 
been the basis for the information of the "very 
important enemy unit" that caused the continuation 
of the operation. In any event, the available evidence 
pointed to elements of the \'-23th and the R-20th 
VC battalions being the only units engaged in 
Auburn.** Colonel Bohn several years later com- 
plained about the nature of intelligence available to 
the Marines: "The major frustration was too much 
general intelligence and no good tactical timely 
intelligence. "^'5 

A Busy Night at Da Nang 

As Operation Auburn drew to a close. Group 44 
prepared another surprise for the Marines at Da Nang. 
On the night of 2—3 January 1968, in an obviously 
coordinated series of ground and fire attacks, the VC 
struck at 7th Marines positions north of the Thu Bon, 
the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines command post at An 
Hoa, and at Combined Action units and South Viet- 
namese District headquarters throughout the Da 
Nang area of operations. The Communists capped off 
their assaults with an early morning rocket barrage of 
the Da Nang airfield. 

The enemy began the night's events about 2200 
with several sniping and harassing fire incidents on 
Marine outposts throughout the Da Nang area of oper- 
ations. About a half-hour later, some 15 Communist 
troops attacked the 7th Marines command post on Hill 
55, the low-lying but dominant piece of terrain south 
of Da Nang, with automatic weapons, rifle fire, and 
antitank rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The\- 
knocked out a security tower and wounded two 
Marines. The defending troops responded with small 



*The bridge across rhe Ky Lam River connecting the An Hoa com- 
bat base to the 7th Marines area of operations. 



** Lieutenant Colonel Bowers believed, however, that the Marines 
engaged an NVA unit rather than the VC R-20 Battalion. He felt chat 
the tactics, uniforms, and "unusually fierce tenacity" were indicative of 
rhe NVA. According to Bowers, the designation was made the R-20, 
"by default, simply because we couldn't prove that any other unit was 
present." Bowers Comments. An Army historian, George L. MacGar- 
rigle, suggested that perhaps the /90//> NVA Battalion "was the secu- 
rity force for Front 44 [Gronp 44] also known ius Front 4." George L. 
MacGarrigle, Historian, CMH, Comments on draft, dtd 5Dec94 (Viet- 
nam Comment Files). 



98 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



arms and 4.2-inch and 81mm mortars. Under illumi- 
nation provided by a C— 1 17 flareship, a small Marine 
reaction force tried to locate the attackers, but they had 
made good their escape. ^^ 

After a brief uneventftil interlude, about 6,000 
meters to the northwest of Hill 55, Communist gun- 
ners at 0045 3 January mortared the Hieu Due Dis- 
trict headquarters and the U.S. advisory compound 
located there. They then shelled the nearby 1st Bat- 
talion, 7th Marines command post on Hill 10. A 
Marine lookout in an observation tower spotted the 
mortar muzzle flashes and immediately radioed the 
coordinates to Battery G, 3d Battalion, 1 1th Marines, 
also on Hill 10 and collocated with the infantry bat- 
talion command post. Although about 40 enemy 
rounds impacted near the Marine battery positions, all 
guns remained "up and firing." The Marine 105mm 
howitzers responded with counter-mortar fires rein- 
forced by 81mm mortars and 106mm recoilless rifles 
and silenced the VC weapons. s^ 

Fifteen minutes later, about 0100, U.S. advisors at 
the MACV compound at Hieu Due reported that 
about 20 sappers armed with grenades and satchel 
charges had penetrated the perimeter. Lieutenant 
Colonel William J. Davis, the 1st Battalion, 7th 
Marines commander whose area of operations includ- 
ed all of Hieu Due District, remembered that the dis- 
trict's U.S. Army liaison officer radioed: "The VC are 
throughout our position; request assistance 
posthaste. "59 Davis ordered an infantry platoon 
accompanied by two supporting M48 tanks from the 
1st Tank Battalion to go to the assistance of the advi- 
sors at the district headquarters, about 500 meters 
east of Hill 10. The tanks had barely departed the hill 
when an enemy rocket team, laying in ambush, fired 
nine RPG rounds into the two vehicles. Although 
still mobile and able to use their 90mm cannons and 
.50 caliber machine guns, both tanks sustained dam- 
age, one a jammed turret, and casualties. Four of the 
eight Marine crewmen were wounded. Covered by 
the infantry, the two vehicles pulled back to their for- 
mer positions and another M48 lumbered forward. 
While also hit by an RPG round, the third tank fol- 
lowed by part of the Marine infantry platoon smashed 
through the enemy ambush site, killing one of the 
enemy gunners. The relief force reached the MACV 
compound at 0325 and the enemy, estimated at com- 
pany size, began to disengage. After the breaking of 
the "siege," the Americans discovered four enemy 
dead on the defensive wire. There were no casualties 
among the U.S. advisors. The part of the reaction 



force that stayed behind in the ambush site was, how- 
ever, not as fortunate. Enemy gunners mortared its 
positions which resulted in seven Marines wounded 
and one killed. Again counter-mortar fire quieted the 
enemy tubes.''" 

The Communists were up to more mischief Turn- 
ing their attention from Hieu Due and the 1st Bat- 
talion, 7th Marines, in the next hour, they hit several 
Combined Action platoon hamlets, the Dien Ban 
District headquarters, an outpost near the Ba Ren 
River, and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines command 
post at An Hoa. The enemy limited most of these 
attacks to small-arms harassing fire and mortars. At 
An Hoa, the enemy fired eight satchel charges from a 
"tube-like device" near the airfield there. Two of the 
charges detonated in the air and the other six failed to 
explode. In somewhat of an understatement, the bat- 
talion commander observed in his monthly report, 
"Although ingenious, the crude mortars proved to 
have a high dud rate." More serious was the VC 
assault on the Combined Action Platoon S— 1 located 
in the coastal village of Phuoc Trach, east of Hoi An. 
After first mortaring the platoon, an unknown num- 
ber of enemy overran the compound. They destroyed 
the communication and ammunition bunkers. By the 
time a relief force consisting of three neighboring 
Popular Force platoons arrived on the scene after day- 
break, the enemy had long gone. Casualties among 
the Marine and PF troops in the hamlet were heavy. 
All of the 14 Marines assigned to the Combined 
Action unit were either dead or wounded. The PFs 
sustained 19 killed and 12 wounded. Communist 
losses, if any, were unknown.-"* 

The Communist raiders were not finished for the 
night. About 0400, a Marine sentry from the 1st Bat- 
talion, 7th Marines, manning a tower on Hill 10, 
noticed large flashes about 3,000 meters to the east 
near the Yen River and immediately sounded the rock- 
et attack alarm. Within a 10-minute time span, nearly 
50 122mm enemy rockets impacted on the main air- 
base. Responding almost immediately to the attack, a 
Marine M48 tank on Hill 43 in the Southern Defense 
Sector took the suspected launching site under fire. An 
Air Force Douglas AC— 47 "Spooky" transport 
equipped with 7.62mm miniguns and floodlights 
"also opened up immediately and hit area while enemy 



*Thc record shows that four Marines were killed in the action at 
Phuoc Trach, five wounded, and five listed as missing. Although not 
specifically mentioned in the report, it is assumed that the five miss- 
ing Marines were killed and their bodies later recovered. 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



99 




■-.v'i^i 



Photo is courtesy of Col John F. Batr, USMC (Ret) 
MajGen DonnJ. Robertson, CG, 1st MarDiv, is escorted 
by LtCol John F. Barr, the operations officer of the 1 1 th 
Marines, the artillery regiment at Da Nang, as they visit 
one of the firing sites uncovered by Marines the morning after 
the rocket bombardment of the base. LtCol Barr is holding a 
Ml Carbine, "a non-TIO weapon," " that he took as" "an 
added precaution . . . for a dawn landing at the site. " 

was launching rockets. " Marine 81mm mortars rein- 
forced the M48's 90mm gun and 105mm howitzers 
from the 11th Marines delivered 620 rounds within 
two minutes on the enemy firing positions. Still the 
enemy rockets destroyed three American aircraft, one 
Marine F-4B and two Air Force prop-driven planes, 
and damaged 17 other aircraft. Due to cratering, the 
airbase had to close 3,000 feet of its east runway and 
1,000 feet of the west runway until repairs could be 
made. Despite the barrage, casualties were low, only 
four Air Force personnel sustained minor wounds.-*- 

The next morning, a reaction force from Company 
C, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines uncovered about three 
large firing sites and found a total of 21 unfired 
122mm rockets and 1 l40mm rocket. Near the west- 
ern bank of the Yen, the Marines came across "four 
enemy bodies clad in khaki and black uniforms." 
Marine intelligence officers later determined that the 
enemy rocketeers fired their missiles from three dis- 
tinct battery positions "and a total of 18 individual 
rocket sites." It was obvious that the attack on the air- 
base was a major coordinated effort, probably carried 
out by elements of the NWA 3688 Artilleij Reginmit, 
possibly reinforced by a new enemy unit in the sector, 
the 1st Battalion, 68th Artillery Regiment. During the 
night, in addition to the rocket attack. Group 44 units 
had initiated some 25 actions by fire often followed by 
an infantry ground assault in seven of the nine districts 
of Quang Nam Province.^? 



Continuing Heavy Fighting and 
Increasing Uncertainty 

Despite all of the ado in the Da Nang sector includ- 
ing the rocket attack on the airbase, the main enemy 
thrust on the night of 2-3 January was further south in 
the Que Son Valley. Even with the compromise of his 
plans in December, North Vietnamese Army Major 
General Chu Huy Man, the commander of the enemy 
Military Region 3 or B-1 Front, decided to proceed with 
the offensive against the 1st Air Cavalry 3d Brigade fire 
bases in the WheelerA)C^allowa operating area.' Man 
apparently received "explicit instructions from Hanoi" 
to send the entire 2d NVA Division against the U.S. 
brigade's defenses in the Que Son sector. Flaving 
deferred the onset of the campaign, the enemy appar- 
ently hoped that they had lulled the Americans into a 
false sense of complacency. Furthermore, they obvious- 
ly thought the Group 44 activity at Da Nang on the 
night of 2-3 January would draw the American com- 
mand's attention away from the Que Son Valley into 
the mistaken belief that the 2d NVA Division had 
moved north and was about to attack the Marine base 
at Da Nang. The North Vietnamese commanders 
might have had another motivation, as well: "the heli- 
copter killing zone in the valley's upper reaches was too 
tempting to abandon."" 

Despite release to the news media by MACV about 
the capture of the North Vietnamese document. Gen- 
eral Koster, the Americal Division commander, was 
not all that sure that the North Vietnamese had aban- 
doned their original plan. With the NVA 2d Division 
maintaining radio silence with the beginning of the 
new year, Koster became even more suspicious about 
the enemy's intentions. On 2 January, he ordered 
Colonel Hubert S. Campbell, the commanding officer 
of the 3d Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, who main- 
tained his command post at Fire Base Ross near the 
town of Que Son, to search a few of the enemy attack 
assembly areas depicted on the NVA map.^' 

That afternoon. Company C, 2d Battalion, 12th 
Cavalry encountered a large enemy force in a rice 
paddy about 5,000 meters southwest of Fire Base 
Ross. Company A, 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry rein- 
forced Company C and 3d Brigade helicopter gun- 
ships provided air support for both companies. In the 
ensuing four and a half-hour fire fight that lasted 



*Army historian George L. MacGarrtgle behcved that by Tet 
1968, Man most likely was a lieutenant general, but observed that "it's 
difficult to determine what rank senior enemy generals held at any 
given time." MacGarriglc Comments. 



100 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



until near dark when the enemy withdrew, the Cav- 
alry troopers sustained casualties of: three dead and 
five wounded and evacuated. They killed 39 North 
Vietnamese with the armed helicopters accounting 
for most of the enemy losses. The American troops 
also recovered several enemy weapons left behind by 
the retreating NVA and took two wounded prison- 
ers. Under interrogation, the two captives related 
that they had recently infiltrated into their new sec- 
tor through the mountains to the northwest togeth- 
er with about 1,000 other North Vietnamese troops. 
They stated that they had recently passed a rocket 
firing position with six 122mm rocket launchers and 
observed numerous antiaircraft emplacements. Upon 
learning this intelligence. Colonel Campbell placed 
his entire 3d Brigade on full alert. "^ 

In the early hours of 3 January, shortly after the 
initial assaults in the Da Nang area, the NVA 2d 
Division struck, under the cover of darkness, four of 
the 3d Brigade's fire bases: Ross, Leslie, Colt, and 
Baldy. At Baldy, located about 15,000 meters north- 
east of Ross near Route 1, and Colt, about 10,000 
meters east of Ross, the enemy limited himself to 
mortar attacks. The NVA division reserved its main 
efforts for Ross and Leslie, throwing the 3^ and 21st 
Regiments against the two firebases. At Leslie, about 
5,000 meters to the southwest of Ross, enemy 
infantry followed closely upon the initial mortar and 
rocket barrage. Although the North Vietnamese ini- 
tially broke through the bunker line, the 1st Caval- 
ry defenders threw back the enemy with heavy loss- 
es. At Ross, an even larger North Vietnamese force 
used "human wave" tactics. The men of the 2d Bat- 
talion, 12th Cavalry, however, on Ross, were ready. 
According to one account. Captain Charles A. 
Krohn, the battalion intelligence officer, had made 
an analysis of past NVA attacks and found a pattern. 
The NVA depended on the preparatory mortars and 
rockets to keep the defenders under cover with their 
heads down while enemy sappers cut the wire and 
cleared away obstacles. Krohn suggested that the 2d 
Battalion troopers attempt during the shelling to 
keep their eyes on the perimeter irrespective of the 
shelling and continue firing. Even with the imple- 
mentation of the intelligence officer's recommenda- 
tions, the defense of Ross was a near thing. At one 
point, 3d Brigade artillerymen on Ross lowered their 
guns and fired canister rounds directly into the 
attackers. By 0530, the fighting at Ross was over and 
the NVA withdrew, defeated. At both perimeters, 
the 1st Cavalry troopers counted a total of 331 NVA 



dead at a cost of 18 Americans KIA, 137 evacuated 
and woimded, and 3 missing in action.^^ 

Further south, in the Que Son Valley, near Hiep 
Due, an undermanned 1st VC Regiment, the remain- 
ing infantry regiment of the 2d NVA Division, hit a 
firebase of the Americal Division's 196th Light 
Infantry Brigade. Poorly coordinated with its forces 
badly dispersed, the enemy attack soon faltered. 
Colonel Louis Gelling, the 196th commander, 
formed the brigade into two task forces and rapidly 
took the initiative. By 9 January, the 196th had 
accounted for over 400 of the enemy. -is 

Although the 1st Cavalry troops on Leslie had 
repulsed the ground assault on their positions, the 
North Vietnamese continued to maintain pressure 
on the American fire base. NVA antiaircraft units 
had occupied the high ground overlooking Leslie 
and their guns made any resupply of the base an 
extremely hazardous venture. Colonel Campbell, the 
3d Brigade commander, later recalled that Leslie 
"was not resupplied for a period of about nine days 
because of the ring of 12.7mm's [enemy antiair 
machine guns] around it. " During what amounted 
to the siege of Fire Base Leslie, enemy gunners shot 
down 7 1st Air Cavalry helicopters and damaged 26 
more seriously enough to put them temporarily out 
of commission.-is" 

Despite the deteriorating weather which limited 
both fixed-wing and helicopter support, the 196th 
and the 3d Brigade carried the fight to the enemy. 
With preregistered points based on key terrain ear- 
marked on the captured enemy map. Colonel Camp- 
bell's artillery placed heavy fires on suspected enemy 
positions. Preplanned B— 52 strikes flying high 
above the clouds also rained down a devastating 
amount of explosives upon presumed NVA concen- 
tration areas. With this support, occasionally rein- 
forced by Marine and Air Force tactical fixed-wing 
aircraft and Army gunships when the weather per- 
mitted, the Army infantry attempted to outmaneu- 
ver and close with the enemy. Ceiling's 196th 
engaged in several night company-size fire fights, 
often in a driving rain storm. Both the 3d Brigade 
and the 196th took a heavy toll of the 2d NVA Divi- 
sion in the Que Son Valley. By the time the fighting 
ended in mid-January, the Army brigades had killed 
more than a 1,000 enemy at a cost of about 100 
American lives. Although still remaining in the 
field, the 2d NVA suffered losses that impaired its 
future effectiveness. 5" 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



101 



Phu hoc Operations 

While the Army units turned back the 2d NVA 
Division offensive in the Que Son Valley, North Viet- 
namese units in Phu Loc District, north of Da Nang 
and the Hai Van Pass, initiated a series of broad-based 
assaults on allied units in that sector. Their special tar- 
gets were the Marine Combined Action units, espe- 
cially CAPs H (Hotel) 5, 6, and 7, protecting Route 1, 
as it wended its way through the mountains between 
Da Nang and Phu Loc District Town. The enemy obvi- 
ously realized that cutting Route 1 here where it was 
vulnerable reduced the capability of the allied forces to 
reinforce and resupply their forces to the north.* 

To safeguard this important north-south link 
between Da Nang and Marine forces in Thua Thien 
Province, III MAF had reinforced the 2d Battalion, 
26th Marines at Phu Bai with the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines under the command of Lieutenant Colonel 
Oliver W. van den Berg. On 26 December, while 
remaining under the operational control of the 5th 
Marines at Da Nang, Lieutenant Colonel van den 
Berg officially assumed from the 2d Battalion, 26th 
Marines at Phu Bai responsibility for the Phu Loc 
TAOR extending from Hai Van Pass in the south to 
the Truoi River to the northwest. Route 1 bisected 
the area of operations southeast to northwest. The ter- 
rain consisted of a narrow coastal lowland east of 
Route 1, a high, jungled piedmont south and west of 
Route 1, and the Annamite Mountain Range to the 
west. Bach Ma Mountain rising above 1,400 meters 
in height and located about 8,000 meters south of 
Phu Loc District Town dominated the western and 
southern area of operations. A large inland bay. Dam 
Cau Hai, rimmed the northern edge of the battalion's 
sector. Most of the population was confined to a few 
fishing villages along the coast and farming commu- 
nities that lay on either side of Route 1 and in the 
small river valleys in the district. 

Lieutenant Colonel van den Berg established his 
command post just south of the town of Phu Loc. Of 
the battalion's four infantry companies, three deployed 
in or around the battalion assembly area. The fourth. 



Company D, established its base area about 15,000 
meters to the east of the rest of the battalion and about 
10,000 meters north of the Hai Van Pass. The 1st 
Division attached two artillery batteries from the 1 1th 
Marines to Lieutenant Colonel van den Berg's com- 
mand. Battery D, 1st Battalion, 1 1th Marines with its 
105mm howitzers provided direct support for the 
infantry from positions within the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines assembly area. A 155mm howitzer battery, 
Battery L, 4th Battalion, 1 1th Marines, split into two- 
gun sections, one section at the battalion assembly 
area and the second with Company D, north of the 
Hai Van Pass. From both locations, the Marine 
infantry battalion and its supporting artillery were in 
position to cover the Combined Action platoons and 
Route 1 in the sector.^'** 

While the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines relocated 
north of the Hai Van Pass, North Vietnamese units had 
augmented the VC 804th and K.4B Main Force Battal- 
ions and VC local force units that traditionally operat- 
ed in the Phu Loc region. In early December, the 
Marines received reports of a new 4th NVA Regiment. 
On 1 3 December, a North Vietnamese soldier defected 
to the South Vietnamese and gave his unit as the 1st 
Battalion, 4th NVA Regiment, recently changed from 
the 4th Battalion, 9th NVA Regiment. The "rallier" stat- 
ed that his redesignated unit had arrived in the Phu 
Loc forward area near Bach Ma Mountain in late 
November. This together with other prisoner reports of 
a 2d Battalion, 4th NVA Regiment in southern Thua 
Thien Province confirmed the presence of the new 
enemy regiment. Furthermore, other intelligence 
sources identified a new VC Battalion, the 802d. locat- 
ed east of the recently arrived 4th NVA, along the Thua 
Thien-Quang Nam Boundary. '^ 

This relatively rapid buildup of enemy forces in the 
Phu Loc sector obviously pointed to some enemy ini- 
tiative in the very near future. A Combined Action 
Marine, James Duguid, assigned to CAP Hotel 6 in 
the hamlet of Nuoc Ngot just oft Route 1, and about 



* Colonel Robert J. Keller, who at the time commanded the 3d 
Combined Action Group which included the Phu Loc Combined 
Action units, observed that in late December 1967 and early January 
1968: "In Phu Loc, the NVA was moving from the mountains to the 
coast and CAPs, stretched along Route # 1 , providing nightly ambush- 
es, represented obstacles that had to be dealt with . . . ." Col Robert J. 
Keller, Comments on draft, dtd 2Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), 
hereafter Keller Comments. 



** Lieutenant Colonel Oliver W. van den Berg, Jr., several years 
later commented that the Combined Action platoons "were often 
placed in untenable positions." To provide a military presence and a 
sense of security, the Combined Action units were usually in a village 
perimeter and intermingled with the local population. Lieutenant 
Colonel van den Berg, Jr., observed that the options open to him 
"seemed to be to let the Marine/CAPs be overrun or accept civilian 
casualties." He, nevertheless, employed "off-set registration tech- 
niques' that with a few or even one "firing adjustment, fire for effect 
missions could be called or directed" from his command post to sup- 
port the Combined Action units. LtCol Oliver W. van den Berg, Jr., 
Comments on draft, dtd 12Dec94 (Vietnam Comment file). 



102 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




6,000 meters east of the town of Phu Loc, recalled sev- 
eral years later that in November or December 1967 
while on patrol he stumbled upon what was in effect "a 
relief map made on the ground." The "map" consisted 
of "rocks, sticks, and pieces of bamboo and leaves" 
depicting the Marine base at Phu Bai, Route 1 , and all 
of the Combined Action platoons in "Hotel" Compa- 
ny. Duguid remembered that a rock denoted Phu Loc 
headquarters and little sticks signified Marine and 
South Vietnamese defensive bunkers. He passed this 
information up the chain of command, but received no 
reaction to the intelligence. Concurrently, however, the 
defector from the 4th NVA Regiment provided support- 
ing testimony about enemy intentions. He related that 
the enemy Tri-Thkn Nlilitai'j Region had ordered all 
units under its command to carry out a major cam- 
paign before Tet: "The VC would attack like lightning 
and occupy a few ARVN bases and [then] will use the 
(Tet) cease-fire period for resupply of food." Ill MAF 
intelligence officers gave credence to such a stratagem 
as in accordance with a North Vietnamese resolution to 
sever Thua Thien and Quang Tri Provinces from South 



Vietnam. The North Vietnamese rallier declared that 
the first phase of the enemy campaign in the Phu Loc 
area would include the destruction of bridges on Route 
1 "to paralyze the supply route" followed by a "coordi- 
nated attack against the Phu Loc sub-sector using both 
infantry and sapper units. "'3* 

By the beginning of the year, the enemy forces in 
Phu Loc had opened their first phase of the offensive. 
From 23 December through 6 January, enemy guer- 
rillas and sappers launched a series of attacks against 
allied convoys and bridges along Highway 1 from the 
Hai Van Pass to the bridge over the Truoi River. For 
example on 4 January near Company D positions, 
Marine engineers discovered three destroyed culvert 
bridges. Not satisfied with blowing the bridges, the 
enemy sappers had "booby-trapped" the surrounding 



* Colonel Roberc J. Keller remembered that in late December 
1967 or early January 1968 one of the Combined Action Platoons in 
his sector, CAP Hotel 4, located just south of the Truoi River Bridge 
"killed up to eleven NVA officers in an ambush in what appeared to be 
a pre-troop movement scouting mission." Keller Comments. 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



103 



area with grenades and cement-type mines. The engi- 
neers deactivated the "surprise firing devices" without 
incurring any casualties. In a minesweep mission the 
same morning on Route 1 further south, just above 
the Hai Van Pass, the Marine engineers were less for- 
tunate. A Marine truck detonated a 40-pound 
cement-type mine which seriously wounded six 
Marines and badly damaged the vehicle. That night, 
Marines of Company D received reports that a group 
of 20 VC had the assignment to emplace mines near 
their sector. A Marine patrol failed to uncover any 
enemy, but an 81mm mortar fire mission resulted in a 
secondary explosion. 5^ 

About 1030 the following morning, 5 January, near 
the truck mining incident of the previous day, another 
engineer sweep team, with a squad from Company D 
for security, triggered a VC ambush. An estimated 25- 
man enemy force attacked the Marines with grenades 
and automatic weapons. Two of the grenades landed in 
the rear of a Marine truck. The driver accelerated but 
enemy machine gun fire killed him and the truck ran 
off a steep incline. The remaining Marines regrouped 
and forced the enemy to break contact. The Company 
D commander immediately sent two squads supported 
by two Ontos to reinforce the sweep team. The follow- 
ing morning, on a bridge close to the ambush site, one 
of the Ontos struck a mine destroying the vehicle and 
killing the driver and wounding another Marine. 
About 1300, 6 January, just west of the bridge, one of 
the Company D squads, searching for an enemy sniper, 
came across what appeared to be another mine. As the 
squad stopped in a small clearing to investigate the 
object, two VC fired some 20 rifle rounds at the Amer- 
icans, killing another Marine. The rest of the squad 
maneuvered through some heavy vegetation to reach 
the enemy positions, but by that time the VC had dis- 
appeared. In the three incidents on 5—6 January, the 
Marines sustained total casualties of 3 dead and 20 
wounded, 17 seriously enough to be evacuated." 

To the west, near Phu Loc, the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines conducted two company sweeps without inci- 
dent, one by Company A to the south of the battalion 
assembly area, and the other by Company C to the 
north and east of the assembly area. On the night of 6 
January, however, a Company A listening post, about 
5,000 meters south of Phu Loc, spotted about four VC 
attempting to infiltrate the company's perimeter. The 
Marines fired 60 rounds and the enemy troops fled.'^^' 

Through this period, the Combined Action pla- 
toons positioned along Route 1 sensed that the enemy 
was preparing for a large push. Already, the VC had 



initiated some 30 incidents, mostly minor contacts of 
various sorts, in the local hamlets or along the highway. 
As Thomas Krusewski, a former CAP Marine in Hotel 

6, several years later observed, "[the] atmosphere 
around you was tense. We began to have troop move- 
ment around {us}." The Combined Action Marines 
noted motorcycle tracks in the woods which implied 
that the enemy was paying off the local hamlet chiefs 
in return for the cooperation of the villagers. Krusews- 
ki remarked one "did not need to be a PhD to figure it 
{the situation] out." The VC were about to attack; the 
only remaining questions were where and when.''" 

In the early morning hours of 7 January the Com- 
munist forces struck. They hit the Phu Loc District 
headquarters, the command post of the 1st Battalion, 
5th Marines south of Phu Loc, the Company D base 
position north of the Hai Van Pass, and three of the 
Combined Action compounds between Phu Loc and 
the Hai Van Pass. Although limiting their attacks on 
the Marine units to attacks by fire, the enemy pene- 
trated the Phu Loc District headquarters and the near- 
by Hotel 5 Combined Action compound. The Com- 
munist troops overran the other two Combined Action 
platoons. Hotel 6 and 7, located approximately 6 and 
14 kilometers respectively east of Phu Loc.^s 

At Hotel 6 in the hamlet of Ngoc Ngot during the 
night of 6— 7 January, Corporal Arliss Willhite remem- 
bered that the Marines and PFs had just returned from 
a large sweep operation along Route 1 with CAP Hotel 

7. Following the suggestion of one of the Marine squad 
leaders, the CAP commander decided against putting 
out the usual listening posts. The CAP Marines, how- 
ever, posted a small security force including four 
Marines at a nearby bridge on Route 1. In the com- 
pound itself, another four Marines stood watch. At 
about 0330 on 7 January, over 150 enemy troops 
dashed into the compound from two different direc- 
tions, flinging satchel charges and grenades, and firing 
automatic weapons. From his vantage point near the 
bridge on Route 1 where he was in charge of the secu- 
rity group there. Lance Corporal Frank Lopez later 
described the attack: "All of a sudden hell broke loose, 
mortars are coming in and rockets and everything." 
The enemy assault force had placed blankets and mats 
over the concertina wire surrounding the compound 
and "just hopped over with sappers and automatic 
weapons." According to Lopez, "it looked like ants 
coming over a hill or just coming through the wire 
towards the compound, yelling, screaming, everj'one 
was just yelling and getting hit." By this time, Lopez 
and his group were also under attack from about lO 



104 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



VC and too busy defending themselves and the bridge 
to observe the fight in Ngoc Ngot.'^ 

In the compound itself, pandemonium reigned. 
Corporal Willhite recollected that the VC were in the 
compound so fast some Marines and several of the PFs 
panicked: "Some of them just went out and crawled 
under hootches and stuff, they forgot their rifles."' On 
the other hand, several Marines and a few of the Popu- 
lar Force troops fought off the enemy as best they 
could. Willhite remembered that as he ran out of his 
"hootch" with his rifle, enemy soldiers ignored him, 
concentrating instead upon the communication and 
ammunition bunkers. Reaching a site with a clear field 
of fire of the ammunition bunker, Willhite and a 
mixed group of Marines and PFs attempted to stem the 
tide. Both he and Krusewski credited one Popular 
Force member, armed with a Browning automatic 
rifle, for providing the necessary firepower to hold off 
the enemy from reaching their positions. Within 25 to 
30 minutes, nevertheless, the Communist attackers 
had nearly destroyed the entire compound. Krusewski 
later wondered "why they didn't kill everybody, I don't 
know, they just turned around and left when the sun 
started coming up." Equally puzzled, Willhite, nearly 
20 years later still spoke in disbelief, "It was like a mir- 
acle, sun came up, church bells rang. They just picked 
up their stuff and walked away."''" 

The detail led by Lance Corporal Lopez had with- 
stood the enemy assault in their sector and the bridge 
still stood. It was the only one of four bridges between 
Phu Loc and CAP Hotel 7 on Route 1 that remained 
intact. Seeing the Communist troops withdrawing 
from the compound, the four Marines returned to 
Ngoc Ngot and began to attend to the wounded and 
bury the dead.''' 

Of the more than 40 troops, both Marines and 
South Vietnamese, in the Hotel 6 compound the 
night before, only about seven escaped relatively 
unscathed. The Marines sustained casualties of 5 dead 
and 16 wounded, 12 of whom had to be evacuated. 
Among the dead was the Navy corpsman. It would 
not be until 0900 that a Marine platoon from Com- 
pany D, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines arrived and called 



*In his comments, Willhite believed the reason that some of the 
Marines panicked was because the VC were into the compound so 
quickly. He recalled "hearing 'incoming!' then almost immediately 
'They're in the compound.' They were at the doors of our hootches." 
Willhite claimed the reason that he got out with his gear, "because I 
always tied my backdoor shut with corn-wire at night to keep it from 
being blown open by the wind." Arliss Willhite, Comments on draft, 
dtd 28Sep94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



in a helicopter to take out the most seriously wound- 
ed. As Corporal Willhite later remarked, the CAP 
Marines could not depend on supporting infantry and 
artillery. When the enemy attacks, "they know all 
about your supporting units, and they tie them up . . 
. they usually always get you."''- 

In this particular instance, the corporal was 
absolutely correct. In the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines 
command post, the battalion received a radio message 
at 0335 about the attack on the Phu Loc District head- 
quarters. At the same time the Combined Action 
Group headquarters reported that it had lost radio 
communication with CAPs Hotel 6 and 7 and that 
Hotel 5 at Phu Loc was under attack. Less than five 
minutes later, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines assembly 
area south of Phu Loc came under an 82mm mortar 
barrage and recoilless rifle fire. Among the wounded 
was the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel van 
den Berg." Major Harold J. McMuUen, the battalion 
executive officer, temporarily assumed command.''^ 

About an hour after the attack on the battalion 
command post. Communist gunners also took the 
Company D base area under mortar and recoilless rifle 
fire. At 0530, the Company D commander sent a reac- 
tion force to Hotel 6 and 7, but enemy mortar rounds 
forced the Marines to turn back. Waiting until day- 
light to avoid a possible enemy ambush. Major 
McMullen sent a platoon-sized relief force from Com- 
pany B to the assistance of the district headquarters and 
the CAP platoons. As the Company B platoon entered 
the Phu Loc District compound at 0700, they saw the 
VC attempting to disengage and took them under fire, 
killing seven of the enemy. At the headquarters, the 
combined force of ARVN and U.S. advisors accounted 
for about 50 of the enemy. An hour later the Marine 
platoon reached Hotel 5 where the enemy had already 
departed. The Marines there sustained casualties of one 
dead and five wounded. At about the same time, 0800, 
another platoon from Company D arrived at Hotel 7 
which had been overrun. The CAP Marines there suf- 
fered casualties of seven dead and four wounded. One 
hour later the Company D platoon arrived at Hotel 6. 
All told on the morning of 7 January in the Phu Loc 
sector, the allies sustained casualties of 18 Marines 
killed and 84 wounded, 4 U.S. Army advisors wound- 
ed, and an unspecified number of South Vietnamese 
regular troops and PFs killed and wounded, while 



** Lieutenant Colonel van den Berg commented that "due to the 
lack of reaction time and space, I am not aware of any close defensive 
fires called by/tor any CAP." van den Berg Comments. 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



105 



inflicting upon the enemy an estimated 80 dead. U.S. 
and South Vietnamese inteUigence ofFicets later identi- 
fied two enemy battalions as taking part in the coordi- 
nated attack, the NVA 1st Battalion, 9th Regiwent, 
probably attached to the new 4th NVA Regiment, and 
the VC K4B Battalion^ 

After the events of the 7th, the enemy units in the 
Phu Loc area limited their efforts for the most part to 
intermittent mortar and harassing attacks by fire on 
both the Combined Action units and the 1st Battalion, 
5th Marines. The most serious incident occurred on 12 
January when an enemy mortar attack on a 1st Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines defensive position south of Phu Loc 
resulted in 6 Marines killed and 1 1 wounded. At the 
same time, the NVA and VC units continued their 
interdiction of Route 1 with minor ambushes of con- 
voys and blowing up bridges and culverts. Between 
7-15 January, the enemy had detonated 10 bridges, 
knocked out 4 culverts, and cut the highway in 3 
places. Marine engineers and Navy Seabees repaired 
most of the damage within three days. On the 15th, 
however, one bridge was still out, but "bypassable."<'5 

The Formation and Deployment of 
Task Force X-Ray 

By mid-January, the 1st Marine Division had 
established its Task Force X-Ray headquarters at 
Phu Bai and the deployment of U.S. forces from 
southern I Corps and Da Nang to the northern bat- 
tlefield in Operation Checkers had begun in earnest. 
Initially as part of the Operation Checkers planning 
in November 1967, the III MAF staff considered 
sending individual 1st Marine Division units north 
and placing them under the operational control of 
the 3d Marine Division. At that point. Major Gen- 
eral Robertson, the 1st Marine Division commander, 
recommended instead that the 1st Division merely 
extend its area of operations into Thua Thien. Gen- 
eral Cushman concurred and on 4 December 1967 
General Robertson activated the Task Force X-Ray 
planning staff, under his assistant division comman- 
der, Brigadier General Foster "Frosty" C. LaHue, to 
carry out the new mission. 66 

After a brief period of consultation between the 3d 
Marine Division and the Task Force X-Ray staffs, on 
18 December, General Robertson's headquarters 
issued its operational order outlining the transfer of 
responsibilities. The concept called for Task Force X- 
Ray to move its headquarters to Phu Bai and take 
over the 3d Marine Division command post there. 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A4 13469 
BGen Foster C. LaHue, here in an official portrait, was the 
assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division in 

January 1968 and also assumed the additional duty of 
CG, TF X-Ray, in command of the 1st Marine Division 

forces at Phu Bai. 

General LaHue would assume operational control of 
both the 1st and 5th Marines. The 1st Marines with 
two battalions would deploy to Camp Evans while 
the 5th Marines with three battalions would relocate 
to the Phu Bai and Phu Loc sectors. Thus, the 1st 
Marines would conduct operations in northern Thua 
Thien while the 5th Marines would bear the same 
responsibility in the southern half of the province."" 

This redeployment would be carried out in a series 
of "incremental jumps." In an exchange of messages 
and a conference at III MAF headquarters on 21 
December, Task Force X-Ray and 1st and 3d Marine 
Division staff officers worked out a timetable and 
agreement on the boundaries between the two divi- 
sions. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in its move to 
Phu Loc was the vanguard of Task Force X-Ray. "-"^ 

On 11 January, the 1st Marine Division ordered 
the activation of T^isk Force X-Ray at Phu Bai. The 
new command initially was to consist of the 5rh 
Marines regimental headquarters and two ot its 



106 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



infantry battalions, the 1st and 2d. While the 1st 
Battalion was to remain in the Phu Loc area, the 2d 
Battalion was to relieve the 2d Battalion, 26th 
Marines at Phu Bai, which would then revert to the 
operational control of the 3d Division. The Huong or 
Perfume River was to be the demarcation line 
between the 3d and 1st Marine Divisions.^y 

Beginning on the 11th, helicopters, fixed-wing 
transports, and Navy LCUs transported the Task 
Force headquarters and the 5th Marines headquarters 
elements from Da Nang to Phu Bai. Two days earli- 
er, the advance echelon of the 5 th Marines had arrived 
at the new base. From 13-15 January, Air Force 
transports flew the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines direct- 
ly from the small airfield at An Hoa south of Da 
Nang to the Phu Bai airfield. At noon on 13 January, 
Brigadier General LaHue announced from his new 
command post at Phu Bai the activation of Task Force 
X-Ray tor operations.^o 

For the most part the shift of forces north had 
gone without incident. Colonel Robert D. Bohn, 
the 5th Marines commander, several years later 
recalled that he had known about the proposed rede- 
ployment for over a month and had made prepara- 
tions. Even before the transfer of his 1st Battalion to 
Phu Loc, he had visited the sector and talked to 
friends of his serving on the 3d Marine Division 
staff at Phu Bai. Colonel Bohn mentioned that per- 
haps it may not have been proper for a regimental 
commander to do this on his own, but on the other 
hand, claimed "it was good . . . informal staff coor- 
dination." He recalled very few problems with the 
actual move.'' 

Still any such large transplacement of forces 
results in some inconveniences and difficulties for 
the troops involved. This was to prove no excep- 
tion. One Marine staff sergeant assigned to the Task 
Force X-Ray photo imagery section remembered 
that after his arrival at Phu Bai there were "empty 
hootches" but no supplies and material. The mem- 
bers of the section had "to scrounge" plywood just 
to make frames to hold their maps and pho- 
tographs. On a more personal note, he observed 
that he had not been paid since December and the 
headquarters had lost his pay and health records. 
Although the 5th Marines had a mess hall. Colonel 
Bohn recollected that the troops had no fresh food 
and were eating C-Rations. He protested once he 
learned that helicopters were being used to bring in 
china for the general's mess and the situation was 
soon rectified: "It was an inevitable consequence of 



displacing a hell of a lot more troops up north than 
they had before. "7-* 

Staff problems were almost inherent in the situa- 
tion. As one staff officer later admitted that when the 
Task Force X-Ray staff arrived at Phu Bai they "didn't 
know the magnitude" of the situation that they faced. 
Although the staff was supposed to be a tactical rather 
than an administrative headquarters. Colonel Bohn 
observed that its officers were "so preoccupied with just 
getting the logistics of being a headquarters that they 
had no time to really refine their combat operations 
capability. " The fact that the staff was temporary and 
task organized presented difficulties. As Lieutenant 
Colonel James C. Hecker, the G-1 officer responsible 
for personnel affairs, noted, it "introduces into the sys- 
tem austerity . . . austerity in staffing of the unit; the 
management of the unit; and the economic employ- 
ment of the material resources of the unit." Colonel 
Bohn remarked that the fact that the staff was tempo- 
rary and thrown together was hardly conducive to 
smooth operations."^ 

Still Task Force X-Ray was operational. On 12 Jan- 
uary it issued its first operational order and laid out its 
concept of operations. The order itself differed little 
from the original order published by the 1st Marine 
Division in December. It detailed, however, the task 
organization and units assigned. The 1st Marines was 
slated to be attached with its 1st and 2d Battalions "on 
or about 24 January 1968." At the end of the month, 
the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines was to join its parent 
regiment at Phu Bai. In essence, Task Force X-Ray was 
to be responsible eventually for all of Thua Thien 
Province and General LaHue was to coordinate with 
Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong of the 1st 
ARVN Division.74 

In Thua Thien Province, Marine commanders 
shared responsibility for operations with the 1st 
ARVN Division. U.S. advisors rated General Truong, 
the division commander and former commander of 
the Vietnamese Airborne, as "top notch" and General 
Cushman described Truong as the one Vietnamese 
commander who "stood out" above the rest. Truong 
maintained his division headquarters in Hue but kept 
only one of his infantry regiments, the 3d, in Thua 
Thien Province. Lieutenant Colonel Phan Ba Hoa, the 
regimental commander, was also held in high esteem 



* Brigadier General Paul G. Graham, who was 1st Marine Division 
G-3 or operations officer at the time, doubted the story about heli- 
copters bringing in the china for the general's mess: "I am certain I 
would have heard about such an aberration." Graham Comments. 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



107 



by his American advisors who described him as a 
"highly competent tactician and administrator." Hoa 
positioned two of his battahons and a mobile task 
group at PK 17, so named because it was located near 
a road marker on Route 1, 17 kilometers north of 
Hue. He also retained one battalion and the division 
headquarters near the city. In addition to these forces, 
General Truong had under his control two airborne 
battalions from the General Reserve, one at PK 17 and 
the other near Hue. The arrival of the General Reserve 
battalions was part of a new impetus on the part of 
General Westmoreland and the Vietnamese Joint 
General Staff to reinforce the northern border areas 
and provinces." 

The Cavalry Arrives 

In Saigon at MACV headquarters. General West- 
moreland had been concerned for some time about 
the enemy intentions in the northern two provinces. 
While much of his attention remained riveted on 
Khe Sanh, the MACV commander also worried 
about the enemy buildup in the A Shau Valley 
about 30 miles southwest of Hue near the Laotian 
Border. Since the fall of the Special Forces camp 
there in the spring of 1966, the North Vietnamese 
had used the valley as one of their main base areas 
and infiltration terminals into South Vietnam. Dur- 
ing the summer of 1967, the 4th Marines in Oper- 
ation Cumberland supported by engineers improved 
Highway 547 and established a firebase about 20 
miles southwest of Hue. From there, U.S. Army 
175mm guns fired into the valley. At the onset of 
the fall-winter monsoon season in September, the 
Marines abandoned the firebase because of the 
demands of the DMZ front on Marine manpower 
and washed-out roads which seriously hampered 
resupply. Aerial photographic intelligence soon 
revealed that the North Vietnamese started their 
own road project in the A Shau. Lieutenant General 
Cushman jokingly recalled: "Lo and behold, they 
{the NVA} started building their share of the rural 
development here, and apparently, they're coming 
to meet the road we had built." The U.S. immedi- 
ately started an air bombing interdiction campaign 
in the A Shau. Cushman remembered "some guy 
came up with a chemical or something that was sup- 
posed to turn dirt into mud. It atctually worked to 
some extent, we really plastered the A Shau Valley 
with that." According to the III MAF general, the 
bombing did slow up the NVA in the valley. ^^ 



About this time in early December, General West- 
moreland decided to modify the plans for the York 
operations involving the 1st Air Cavalry Division.' 
While York I was to take place in February in the 
enemy's Do Xa base area in the I and II Corps Tactical 
Zone border region, MACV planned, as the weather 
improved, to insert in April a jomt task force of the 1st 
Cavalry and III MAF units into the A Shau. On 16 
December, Westmoreland visited General Cushman at 
Da Nang to discuss accommodations for the 1st Caval- 
ry if the Army division was to reinforce the Marines in 
the next few months. According to the MACV com- 
mander, he believed the enemy would make his next 
major effort in I Corps and that III MAF should accel- 
erate its York logistic preparations to prepare for an 
early deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He 
directed Cushman to host a conference to include rep- 
resentatives from MACV, the Army division, and III 
MAF to plan the necessary construction of helicopter 
and port facilities to be completed by mid-January. At 
the same time, Westmoreland met with Major Gener- 
al John J. Tolson, the 1st Air Cavalry Division com- 
mander, and alerted him about a possible early deploy- 
ment to I Corps.^^ 

While planning for the York I and II operations 
continued into January, General Westmoreland and 
his staff began to place a higher priority on the rein- 
forcement of northern I Corps. As reports indicated 
the buildup of forces at Khe Sanh and the DMZ, the 
MACV commander made his decision to send the 
1st Cavalry Division north of the Hai Van Pass. On 
10 January, he canceled the York operation in the Do 
Xa sector. Two days later he met with General Cush- 
man at Da Nang to discuss the various contingency 
plans. Westmoreland then ordered that the 1st Cav- 
alry send two brigades north to Thua Thien 
Province. These were the 1st Brigade from the 1st 
Cavalry and the 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne Divi- 
sion, temporarily attached to the 1st Cavalry Divi- 
sion. The Cavalry's 2d Brigade remained in II Corps 
while the 3d Brigade stayed for the time being in the 
Wheeler/Wallowa area in the Que Sons. In fact, on 
13 January, General Westmoreland told Cushman 
not "to direct movement" of the 3d Brigade to 
northern I Corps without his specific approval. Two 
days later, he cabled Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, 
CinCPac, and Army General Earle G. Wheeler, the 
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that the 3d Brigade 
would join the division at Phu Bai at a later date. On 



*See Chupctr 1 for discussion ot the planning tor tin.- York operations. 



108 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



— crasTtgTji^ 



;,(^M:Lf: OF TONKIN 



TFX-RAY 
15 JANUARY 1968 




17 January, the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division 
began its deployment to Phu Bai.'^"' 

On that same date, General Westmoreland 
explained to a gathering of his senior field commanders 
the reasons for the reinforcement of III MAF north of 
the Hai Van Pass. He believed that the NVA was about 
to move against Khe Sanh and also against allied forces 
in the coastal areas of southern Quang Tri and northern 
Thua Thien Provinces from Base Area 101. As he had 
earlier observed to Admiral Sharp and General Wheel- 
er, "the odds are 60^0 that the enemy will launch his 
planned campaign prior to Tet." He told the assembled 
officers that he realized the tenuous logistic situation, 
but that the risk had to be accepted. He was especially 
worried about the lack of a deep-water port and the 
vulnerabihty of Route 1 between Da Nang and Hue. 
He believed that it would take about another regiment 
to secure the highway"' 

General Westmoreland was also concerned about 
command relations, especially in control of air. 



MACV and III MAF staff officers had already started 
to address this problem in the initial planning for 
York II in the A Shau and for an air offensive in sup- 
port of the Marine base at Khe Sanh, codenamed 
Operation Niagara. The questions still remained 
unresolved, however, with deep doctrinal differences 
between the Marines of III MAF and Seventh Air 
Force officers representing MACV. Although the 
MACV air directive called for the Marine wing, oper- 
ating under III MAF control, to support Marine units 
and the Seventh Air Force to provide support for 
Army units, Westmoreland was not sure that the sys- 
tem would work with the 1st Air Cavalry Division 
deployed north of the Hai Van Pass.*' 

On 19 January, General Westmoreland visited 
General Cushman and Major General Norman J. 
Anderson, the commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft 
Wing, at Da Nang. The MACV commander brought 
up the issue of air support for the Cavalry Division in 
its new area of operations. According to Westmore- 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



109 



land, he told Cushman and Anderson that he believed 
"we had to move toward a single management 
arrangement."* After a rather heated discussion, West- 
moreland left the issue open, but told the Marine 
commanders that he expected them "to take care of 
the 1st Cavalry Division." What he did not tell them 
was that he had already sent a message to Admiral 
Sharp recommending a change in air control proce- 
dures. In any event, at the meeting, the MACV com- 
mander directed General Cushman to detach the 1st 
Cavalry's 3d Brigade from the Americal Division to 
rejoin its parent command. «' 

The 1st Air Cavalry Division quickly established an 
area of operations in southern Quang Tri and northern 
Thua Thien Provinces. The division established its 
command post on 20 January in a sector about five 
kilometers north of Phu Bai, designated Landing Zone 
El Paso, that included a Vietnamese civilian cemetery. 
Major General Tolson, who had been on leave in the 
United States at the time the order came to displace, 
arrived at El Paso the following day. With his 1st 
Brigade battalions located both at El Paso and Landing 
Zone Jane about 10 kilometers southwest of Quang Tri 
City and other reinforcing units expected soon, he 
immediately began to look for a new home for the divi- 
sion. As Tolson later stated, he needed "to get the divi- 
sion out of the graveyard. "S2 

Given his immediate mission to protect Quang Tri 
City from the south and southwest and to be prepared 
to launch an attack into the enemy Base Areas 101 
and 114, he took an exploratory reconnaissance flight 
over his new area of operations. During this flight, on 
22 January, he noticed the Marine base at Camp 
Evans and two possible landing sites just south of 
Quang Tri City that he believed better suited for base 
areas than the locations his units now occupied. After 
his return, he met with General Cushman at Da 
Nang. He asked the III MAP commander for permis- 
sion to take over Camp Evans from the Marines and 
also for the two sites in Quang Tri. Cushman granted 
him the request for Evans btit told him that he would 
have to coordinate with the 3d Marine Division for 
the other two areas.**^ 

On 22 January, the 1st Cavalry started its operation 
Jeb Stuart in its new area of operations. Just south of 
Landing Zone Jane, the 1st Brigade's Company C, 1st 
Battalion, 9th Infantry engaged a large enemy force. In 
an obviously mismatched fire fight, the Cavalry troop- 



ers, supported by their gunships, killed 52 of the 
North Vietnamese at a cost of one slightly wounded 
American soldier. Eventually the 1st Brigade moved 
into the two new Quang Tri sites, redesignated Land- 
ing Zones Sharon and Betty, that General Tolson orig- 
inally wanted. The 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne then 
assumed responsibility for Landing Zone Jane while 
General Tolson established his headquarters at Camp 
Evans together with the Cavalry's 3d Brigade. As one 
Marine staff officer later remarked there was "a full 
Army division operating where two reduced Marine 
regiments had been operating. "^^ 

The Changed Situation in the North 

The arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division altered the 
Marine Checkers plan. This especially applied to the 
1st Marines which just had moved from Quang Tri and 
relieved the 4th Marines at Camp Evans. The enemy 
attack on Khe Sanh at the time had an equal impact on 
the plans. On 22 January, the 1st Marines received 
orders to detach the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines which 
was attached to the regiment for a helicopter lift to 
Khe Sanh. This would leave Colonel Stanley S. Hugh- 
es, who relieved Colonel Herbert Ing two days earlier 
at Evans, with no infantry battalions for Operation 
Neosho II in the Co Bi-Thanh Tan sector or for securi- 
ty of the base camp. With the concurrence of the Sev- 
enth Fleet and MACV, General Cushman inserted the 
SLF Alpha battalion, BLT 2/4, into Camp Evans. 
Beginning on 22 January, the SLF helicopter squadron 
HMM-361 lifted three companies of BLT 2/4 from its 
amphibious shipping offshore to Camp Evans and 
then, in turn, flew the companies of the 1st Battalion, 
9th Marines to Khe Sanh. At the same time, the 
Marine helicopters flew 380 civilian refugees out of 
Khe Sanh to Camp Evans. On the 23d, the 1st Marines 
in a "rough rider" convoy trucked the civilians to a 
refugee relocation center in Cam Lo. By the afternoon 
of the 23d, the relief and transplacement of the 1st Bat- 
talion was complete. The 1st Marines assumed opera- 
tional control of BLT 2/4 which assumed responsibili- 
ty for Neosho II operations. s'** 

It was obvious to all concerned that the Neosho 
operation was to be of short duration. Although 
Colonel Hughes on 23 January issued an operational 
order for Neosho II, he soon received a message that 
the 1st Cavalry was to assume responsibility for 



*See Chapters 23 and 24 for the extended discussion of the Single 
Manager issue. 



**See Chapter 5 for description of Neosho I in Camp Evans and 
Co Bi-Thanh Tan area and Chapters 4 and 14 for Marine operations 
at Khe Sanh. 



110 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Camp Evans. Colonel Hughes was to close out Oper- 
ation Neosho on the 24th, and begin redeployment 
to Phu Bai. He was to assume operational control of 
his 1st and 2d Battalions and responsibility ot the 
Phu Bai Vital Area from the 5th Marines. BIT 2/4 
would then reembark for another operation with the 
3d Marine Division. »^* 

On 25 January, the 1st Marines, which had 
remained attached to the 3d Marine Division, revert- 
ed to its parent division and came under the control of 
Task Force X-Ray. The first elements of the 1st Air 
Cavalry Division arrived at Camp Evans and formally 
took over the base two days later. From 25-28 Janu- 
ary in a series of phased deployments, Colonel Hugh- 
es moved his headquarters and the 2d Battalion, 1st 
Marines rear elements from Camp Evans to Phu Bai, 
as well as the artillery battalion, 1st Battalion, 11th 
Marines. At 0830 on the 28th, Hughes opened his 
new command post at the latter base. On 30 January, 
the headquarters and Companies A and B of the 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines began arriving at Phu Bai from 
Quang Tri and returned to parent control. The 2d 
Battalion, 1st Marines infantry companies were still at 
Con Thien but preparing also to move. Colonel Bohn, 
the 5th Marines commander, recalled that at this time 
he visited Hughes and that the 1st Marines comman- 
der "was sitting in a hooch . . . {with] one bunk in 
there and one chair." Bohn asked '"Where the hell's 
your CP?'" and Hughes replied '"This is it." Colonel 
Hughes stated that he did not yet have a specific mis- 
sion and he had under him only "one battalion with 
two companies. "87 

In contrast, however, after the 5th Marines had 
arrived at Phu Bai, the regiment had more than 
enough to keep itself occupied. Since 15 January, 
Colonel Bohn had responsibility for securing High- 
way 1 from the Hai Van Pass to Phu Bai. He was also 
to provide reaction forces for all the Combined 
Action platoons and for any key populated areas in 
the sector. For the most part, until the end of the 
month, the enemy confined his activity to attacks 
and probes on Route 1 and Marine strongpoints in 
the Phu Loc sector. «« 

Through 29 January, Colonel Bohn kept his 1st 
Battalion positioned at Phu Loc and made the 2d Bat- 



*Colonel Bruce F. Meyers, who in 1968 commanded SLF Alpha 
(TG 79.4), commented that operational control of BLT 2/4 was 
returned to him at noon on 26 January and that "we had all elements 
of BLT 2/4 back aboard our shipping in five hours and fifteen min- 
utes." Col Bruce F. Meyers, Comments on draft, dtd 20Feb95 (Vietnam 
Comment File). 



talion responsible for the Phu Bai Vital Area. Origi- 
nally, Bohn expected to use his 3d Battalion as his 
maneuver battalion, but this changed with the arrival 
of the 1st Cavalry Division in northern I Corps. With 
the Army taking over Camp Evans, however, and the 
1st Marines moving from there to Phu Bai, the 3d Bat- 
talion, 5th Marines remained in the Da Nang TAOR. 
The regimental commander then decided to use the 2d 
Battalion as a maneuver battalion when it was relieved 
at Phu Bai by the companies of the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines. On 29 January, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. 
Cheatham, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines commander, 
began the displacement of his battalion and two of his 
companies into the Phu Loc sector^y 

Thus, on the eve of Tet 1968, Task Force X-Ray 
consisted of two infantry regimental headquarters with 
a total of three infantry battalions between them. Also 
under Task Force X-Ray and providing artillery sup- 
port was the 1st Field Artillery Group (1st FAG) con- 
sisting of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 11th Marines and 
several separate batteries. Brigadier General LaHue, 
the task force commander, also shared the Phu Bai base 
with rear echelons of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 
Force Logistic Support Group Alpha, the rear head- 
quarters and echelons of the 3d Marine Division, and 
the Seabees. As one of Lahue's staff officers, Lieutenant 
Colonel Arthur J. Poillon, observed, the arrival of the 
1st Air Cavalry Division had made the original Check- 
ers plan "unrecognizable" and the Marines "found 
themselves reacting to these Army movements . . . ."9" 

The establishment of the 1st Air Cavalry Division 
area of operations between the 1st and 3d Marine 
Divisions also concerned General Westmoreland. 
Already lacking confidence in Marine generalship, he 
decided to establish a new forward headquarters at 
Phu Bai to control the war in the northern two 
provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien. At first he 
considered placing an Army Corps headquarters at 
Phu Bai, but rejected this concept in the belief that it 
would cause too much inter-Service dissension. On 26 
January, he met with General Vien and President 
Thieu about the establishment of both a Joint Gener- 
al Staff and MACV Forward headquarters at Phu Bai. 
Army General Creighton W Abrams, as Deputy 
MACV, would represent Westmoreland while Gener- 
al Lam, the I Corps Commander, would be the per- 
sonal representative of the Joint General Staff. At the 
same time, he notified Admiral Sharp about his inten- 
tions and sent General Abrams to Phu Bai to discuss 
the proposed new command arrangements with Gen- 
eral Cushman, the III MAF commander. ''' 



HEAVY FIGHTING AND REDEPLOYMENT 



111 



Although both General Cushman at Da Nang and 
General Krulak in Hawaii had their suspicions about 
Westmoreland's motivations, they accepted the 
changes with good grace. The two Marine generals 
acknowledged the validity of the MACV comman- 
der's desire to have his forward headquarters in place, 
under his deputy, in the northern sector, where, he 
believed the decisive battle of the war was about to 



begin. On the 27th, General Westmoreland ordered 
an advance echelon of the new headquarters under 
Army Major General Willard Pearson to Phu Bai. 
With the forward deployment of the 1st Air Cavalry 
Division, III MAF prepared to counter the expected 
enemy offensive in the north. 92* 



*The outbreak of the Tet offensive delayed the formal establishment 
ot the MACV Forward headquarters until 12 February. See Chapter 1 1 



PART II 
THE TET OFFENSIVE 



CHAPTER 7 

The Enemy Offensive in the DMZ 
and Southern Quang Tri, 20 January-8 February 

The Cua Viet is Threatened — Adjustment of Forces in Southern Quang Tri Province 

Heavy Fighting Along the DMZ — A Lull in Leatherneck Square — The Cua Viet Continues to Heat Up 

The Battle For Quang Tri City — Tet Aftermath Along the DMZ 



The Cua Viet is Threatened 

Beginning on 20 January, the North Vietnamese 
intensified their efforts in the north firom Khe Sanh to 
the Cua Viet. While most pubhc and media attention 
was focused upon the Khe Sanh base, the Marine 
command could not ignore its northern logistical life- 
line from the Cua Viet Port Facility to Dong Ha 
along the Cua Viet River channel. From Dong Ha, 
Route 9 connected the isolated Marine bases at Cam 
Lo, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, and Ca Lu. The con- 
tinued presence of large North Vietnamese forces 
along the eastern DMZ as well as the buildup of 
forces in the west around Khe Sanh limited the abil- 
ity of the 3d Marine Division to concentrate its forces 
in any one area. Even with the arrival of the addi- 



tional Army forces in the north, the division was still 
spread out from its Quang Tri base in the south, to 
Khe Sanh in the west, and to the Cua Viet in the east. 
Almost simultaneously with attacks on Khe Sanh, 
the North Vietnamese appeared to be making a deter- 
mined attempt to halt the river traffic on the Cua Viet. 
On 20 January, enemy gunners positioned on the 
northern bank of the river forced the temporary clos- 
ing of the Cua Viet. Up to this point, Lieutenant 
Colonel Edward R. Toner's 1st Amphibian Tractor 
Battalion with an infantry company, Company C, 1st 
Battalion, 3d Marines, attached to his command in 
Operation Napoleon, largely had responsibility for the 
security of the river. The battalion was becoming more 
and more hard pressed to carry out this mission.' 



Marine forklifts unload Navy landing craft at the Dong Ha ramp. With the Cua Viet too shallow for large-draft vessels, 
the Navy used both LCMs (landing craft, mechanized) and LCUs (landing craft, utility) to ply the river between the Cua 
Viet Facility and Dong Ha to bring in supplies to Marines in the DMZ sector. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A191332 




11: 



114 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



115 



Only the previous morning, 19 January, a pla- 
toon from Company C, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, 
patrolling the sand dunes along the coast north of 
the A— 1 Strongpoint, and about 5,000 meters above 
the Cua Viet, ran into a company from the enemy 
K—400 Main Force Battalion. Corporal Ronald R. 
Asher, the acting weapons platoon sergeant, remem- 
bered that he and two of his machine gun teams 
accompanied the platoon. According to Asher, the 
"lead squad walked into the NVA positions" and 
that "within seconds the sound of AK's, Ml6s, . . . 
and the unmistakable cough of one of my guns was 
earth shattering." For a few chaotic hours, the pla- 
toon took cover as best it could and attempted to 
recover its casualties. Corporal Asher recalled that 
he and another squad leader assumed control of the 
platoon as both the platoon leader and sergeant were 
incapacitated. 2 

By late afternoon. Lieutenant Colonel Toner had 
reinforced the platoon with the rest of Company C 
supported by tanks and LVTs. Both sides used rifles, 
automatic weapons, grenades, mortars, and artillery 
fire in a hard-fought engagement that lasted much of 
the day. Enemy artillery from north of the Demilita- 
rized Zone fired some 70 130mm rounds into the 
Marine positions. Still the enemy supporting arms 
were no match for the firepower that the Americans 
threw into the battle including air, naval gunfire, 
conventional artillery, and tank direct fire. By 1500, 
both sides had disengaged. The Marines losses were 3 
dead and 33 wounded, 31 of whom had to be evacu- 
ated. According to Marine accounts, they killed 23 of 
the enemy and recovered six weapons including two 
light machine guns.' 

On the following day, the 20th, the enemy not 
only fired at two Navy craft, but earlier that morn- 
ing also engaged a South Vietnamese Navy Coastal 
Patrol Force junk on patrol in the Cua Viet. The 1st 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion, conducting a two- 
company operation nearby in conjunction with the 
2d ARVN Regiment, ran up against an even 
stronger enemy force, approximately a battalion in 
size, than it had the previous day. This time the bat- 
talion had established blocking positions just north- 
west of the hamlet of My Loc on the northern bank 
of the Cua Viet. Starting as a small platoon action, 
the action soon evolved into a fullscale battle 
employing all supporting arms. The enemy subject- 
ed the Marines to an artillery bombardment of about 
50 130mm rounds that lasted for about a half hour 
to cover its withdrawal that afternoon. According to 



Marine officers, the North Vietnamese artillery used 
forward observers to adjust its fire. Two of the LVTs 
in the course of the battle sustained damage, one det- 
onated an explosive device and the other was struck 
by three rocket propelled grenades. The Marine trac- 
tor battalion in this fray suffered casualties of 13 
dead and 48 wounded and reported a bodycount of 
20 dead North Vietnamese. In the same fighting, the 
ARVN claimed to have killed an additional 20 and 
captured 2 prisoners.' 

The situation on the Cua Viet was becoming 
untenable. In the early morning hours of 21 January 
around 0200, a Company C, 1st Battalion, 3d 
Marines outpost spotted an enemy platoon attempt- 
ing to dig in along the sand dunes very near the 
scene of the fighting on the 19th. The Marines 
called in artillery throughout the night and at 0930 
Marine fixed-wing aircraft flew three attack sorties 
against the enemy troops. According to the Marine 
account, the enemy wore "green uniforms similar to 
those of previous contact . . . ." The NVA then with- 
drew to the north under Marine rifle fire and 
grenades, but left nine bodies behind. About an 
hour later, a Navy landing craft (LCM) on the Cua 
Viet triggered another mine which exploded behind 
it. The vessel remained afloat, but the explosion 
knocked out both of its engines. Another LCM 
which came out to tow the helpless craft back to 
port came under fire from the northern bank. After 
all the LCMs had returned safely to the Cua Viet 
Port Facility, the naval commander of the base 
announced "All USN river traffic secured. "^ 

While the river traffic once again resumed the fol- 
lowing day, 22 January was almost a repeat of the 
21st. In the early morning hours of the 22d, an 
American naval gun spotter assigned to the 2d 
ARVN Regiment A— 1 outpost observed about 300 
to 500 North Vietnamese troops through his 
starlight scope moving south in the same general area 
where Company C had its previous clashes with the 
enemy. Pulling back a Company C ambush patrol, 
the American command threw in the entire spectrum 
of supporting arms including 105mm howitzers, 8- 
inch guns, Marine fixed-wing TPQ (radar-controlled) 
aircraft strikes, and an AC-130 "Spooky" minigun 
strafing run. A later ARVN battle damage assessment 
of the evidence, including blood stains, freshly dug 
graves, abandoned web equipment and documents, 
suggested that the enemy may have sustained iis 
many as 100 casualties. Further south, however, on 
the Cua Viet the Navy reported another mining inci- 



116 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



dent. This time, a Navy LCU struck two mines and 
had to be towed back to port. Again the Cua Viet 
Facihty commander closed the river until the next 
day when a Nav)' and Marine underwater demolition 
team from Dong Ha would sweep the river.'^ 

This last was too much for General Cushman at III 
MAE He radioed Major General Tompkins, the 3d 
Marine Division commander, that the "interruption 
to Cua Viet LOC [line of communications} unaccept- 
able." The III MAP commander observed that com- 
mand detonated mines and ground fire against ship- 
ping on the Cua Viet could only be undertaken from 
the river banks. He ordered Tompkins to clear banks 
"at once" and to coordinate his actions with the 1st 
ARVN Division. Cushman advised the 3d Marine 
Division commander that he might want to use SLF 
Bravo, specifically BUT 3/1, for this purpose in the 
sector for a few days." 

The employment of BLT 3/1 in the coastal sector 
of the DMZ was not a new idea. As early as 5 Janu- 
ary 1968, General Cushman had notified the 3d 
Division commander of an SLF operation to be called 
Badger Catch/Saline to be carried out in the Cua Viet 
area from 7 February through 22 February. Tompkins 
was to insure coordination with the local ARVN 
commander. On 1 5 January, Vice Admiral William F. 
Bringle, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, issued 
for planning purposes an initiating directive for 
Operation Badger Catch. He mentioned only that the 
operation would take place in Quang Tri Province 
and at a date "to be determined dependent upon tac- 
tical situation. "8 

Two days later, on 17 January, General Cushman 
appeared to change the original mission for the SLF in 
northern Quang Tri. In a message to General Tomp- 
kins, Cushman suggested that the latter should carry 
out coordinated preemptive attacks in conjunction 
with the 1st ARVN Division in the general DMZ 
area. He remarked that he intended "to assign ele- 
ments of SLF Bravo . . . your opcon on request for 
immediate employment in support of these opera- 
tions." The closing of the Cua Viet, however, appar- 
ently caused the III MAF commander once more to 
change his mind. In a later message on 22 January, 
Cushman told Tompkins to use the SLF in the Cua 
Viet for a few days. Later that day. General Cushman 
informed General Westmoreland, the MACV com- 
mander, that BLT 3/1 would make an amphibious 
landing in the Cua Viet sector on the 23d and assist in 
the clearing of the river. After the completion of that 
mission, the battalion would then go to Camp Carroll 



to take part in the planned preemptive offensive to 
destroy enemy forces that posed a threat to the Camp 
Carroll and Rockpile sites.'' 

At a planning session at the 3d Marine Division 
headquarters on 23 January, SLF and division staff 
officers first selected 0800 the next morning as the 
time for the landing. With the continued enemy 
harassment of allied shipping in the Cua Viet channel, 
General Tompkins and the amphibious commanders 
decided, however, to push forward H— hour to the 
early evening of the 23d. Around 1900, Lieutenant 
Colonel Max McQuown's BLT 3/1 started coming 
ashore and by 2130 McQuown had established his 
command post temporarily at Blue Beach, on the 
northern bank of the mouth of the Cua Viet.i'^ 

Operation Badger Catch was part of a concerted 
effort that General Tompkins had started at noon on 
the 23d to make the Cua Viet reasonably safe for 
LCU and LCM traffic. At that time, he placed 
armed guards on all boats, provided continuous 
HU— IE gunship cover, and placed division "Spar- 
row Hawk" infantry squads on call for immediate 
insertion into the region. The mission of the BLT 
was to eliminate all enemy forces in the immediate 
vicinity of the northern bank of the Cua Viet and to 
prevent any new North Vietnamese forces from 
entering this area. Its area of operations extended 
some 3,000 to 4,000 meters above the Cua Viet and 
about 5,000 to 7,000 meters inland. The 1st ARVN 
Division was to clear the area south of the river and 
provide blocking positions for McQuown's battalion 
to the west." 

The clearing of the Cua Viet proved to be a hard- 
er nut to crack than the planners at III MAE and the 
3d Marine Division first contemplated. As an indi- 
cator of what was to follow, on the morning of the 
24th, the North Vietnamese used a command deto- 
nated mine to sink a Navy LCM in the river chan- 
nel. At that point. General Cushman asked the 
Navy Amphibious Ready Group commander for the 
SLF Bravo helicopter squadron, HMM-165, to lift 
elements of BLT 3/1 to an island in the river chan- 
nel that the North Vietnamese were using as a fir- 
ing and command site to disrupt the boat traffic on 
the Cua Viet.* Although Badger Catch was to last 



* At this point. Operation Badger Catch was an SLF operation and 
the SLF battalion and squadron still came under the Navy amphibious 
ready group commander. Until the amphibious commander officially 
gave up control of his forces ashore to III MAF or his representative, he 
still nominally retained control of the SLF units. 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



117 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190277 
Marines ofBLT 5/1 of the Seventh Fleet's Special Landing Force (SLF) Bravo go into action in the 
Cua Viet sector after being brought ashore by helicopters of HAlM-163. the SLF helicopter 
squadron. In the top photo. Marines move inland after arriving in the landing zone, while a Boe- 
ing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight hovers overhead and prepares to return to the ships of the amphibious 
ready group offshore. Below, Marines of the BLT in their new area of operations move through a 
Vietnamese village with its thatched-r oof huts. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190435 





118 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



only a few days, BLT 3/1 would remain in the Cua 
Viet sector with the same mission for over a month. 
For Lieutenant Colonel McQuown and his battalion 
it was a time to vindicate themselves after their 
somewhat uneven performance in their first SLF 
operation, Badger Tooth, at the end of December. '-* 

Adjustment of Forces in 
Southern Quang Tri Province 

Changes were occurring elsewhere in the 3d Marine 
Division area of operations as well during this period. 
As part of the Checkers plan to concentrate the 3d 
Marine Division in Quang Tri Province, Colonel 
Joseph E. Lo Prete's 3d Marines took over the Opera- 
tion Osceola sector centered around the relatively new 
Quang Tri complex from the 1st Marines. The 1st 
Marines moved to Camp Evans and the 4th Marines 
assumed responsibility for the Lancaster area at Camp 
Carroll. At 0930 on the morning of 20 January, 
Colonel Lo Prete moved into his new command post at 
La Vang, about 4,000 meters below Quang Tri City 
and south of the Thach Han River, and immediately 
began Operation Osceola II with the same forces that 
were in Osceola I.i' 

For all practical purposes, the mission and con- 
cept of operations for Osceola II were the same as 
those for Osceola I. The 3d Marines was to protect 
the Quang Tri base from enemy attack and to pre- 
vent NVA units from Base Area 101 in the far reach- 
es of the Hai Lang Forest Preserve from reaching the 
coast. Lieutenant Colonel Richard W. Goodale's 1st 
Battalion, 3d Marines, located at Ai Tu, above the 
Thach Han and about 3,000 meters northwest of 
Quang Tri City, was responsible for the defense of the 
northern sector which included the airfield and the 
approaches to the base from the west. Collocated at 
La Vang with the 3d Marines was Lieutenant Colonel 
Marcus J. Gravel's 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Grav- 
el's battalion covered the southern and southwestern 
approaches into the Quang Tri coastal region. The 
3d Battalion, 12th Marines, with two 105mm bat- 
teries, one at Ai Tu and the other at La Vang, and one 
provisional 155mm howitzer battery, also at La 



* Colonel Max McQuown wrote that in contrast to Operation Bad- 
ger Tooth, Operation Badger Catch was the "proper, profitable use of a 
potent fighting force. Initially, BLT 3/1 operated within an Amphibi- 
ous Objective Area with all elements of the BLT ashore or on-call." 
Most importantly, he had "firm intelligence about the enemy in the 
area." Col Max McQuown, Comments on draft, dtd 22Nov94 (Viet- 
nam Comment File), 



Vang, provided the artillery support. Company C, 3d 
Tank Battalion, and an Army "Duster" battery, Bat- 
tery A, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery, equipped with 
M42s armed with twin 40mm antiaircraft guns were 
also at La Vang under the operational control of the 
3d Marines and ready to assist the infantry. Elements 
of the 3d Reconnaissance Battalion screened the 
approaches to the west." 

With only two battalions available to him, Lo 
Prete barely had sufficient forces to protect the 
immediate Quang Tri base area let alone carry out 
mobile operations in the extensive southwestern area 
of operations toward Base Area 101. Although the 
1st ARVN Regiment maintained forces to the east 
and north of the Marine regiment, the North Viet- 
namese had already infiltrated at least two battalions 
of the 812th NVA Regiment into the coastal region 
east of Route 1 and Quang Tri City. The NVA Quyet 
Thaig Artillery Regiment equipped with 82mm mor- 
tars and rockets was deployed to the southwest and 
west of the Marines. To the west. Marine reconnais- 
sance "Stingray" patrols made continual sightings of 
small groups of enemy soldiers moving eastward 
towards the coast. '^ 

For the most part, the enemy largely bypassed the 
Marine positions and confined his attacks on the 
Marine base areas and the Quang Tri airfield to 
harassing sniper fire, occasional mortar shelling, and 
rocket bombardment. On two occasions, 24 and 31 
January, enemy 122mm rockets and 60mm and 
82mm mortar rounds hit the Quang Tri airfield but 
caused relatively little damage. Through January, the 
Marines sustained casualties of 2 dead and 32 wound- 
ed and killed 8 of the enemy and took 1 prisoner. 
They also recovered six weapons."'' 

With the North Vietnamese attacks on Khe Sanh 
and the Cua Viet, both Generals Westmoreland and 
Cushman recognized the need for additional forces in 
Quang Tri Province. Westmoreland's decision to 
reinforce Marine forces in the north with the 1st Air 
Cavalry Division provided General Cushman, the III 
MAF commander, with additional options." On 22 
January, after a conference with both General West- 
moreland, and the MACV deputy commander, Gen- 
eral Creighton W Abrams, Cushman outlined his 
plans for the Army division. He planned to assign 
Major General John J. Tolson, the 1st Cavalry Com- 
mander, an extensive area of operations that would 



* *See Chapter 6 for further discussion about the deployment of the 
1st Air Cavalry Division to I Corps. 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



119 



include the enemy Base Area 114 in northern Thua 
Thien Province, and Base Area 101 in southern 
Quang Tri Province. The division command post 
with one brigade would be located at the former 
Marine base at Camp Evans. This brigade would be 
responsible for operations to clear out Base Area 114- 
While part of the same operation, Operation Jeb 
Stuart under the command of General Tolson, the 
second brigade upon its arrival would deploy to 
Quang Tri. It would relieve the 3d Marines of its 
responsibility south of the Thach Han and take over 
the La Vang base area.i^ 

On 22 January, the 1st Air Cavalry's 1st Brigade, 
under the command of Army Colonel Donald V. 
Rattan, deployed from Landing Zone El Paso near 
Phu Bai and established a new fire base at Landing 
Zone Jane, about 10,000 meters south of Quang Tri 
City. Three days later, the 1st Brigade, four battal- 
ions strong, moved from Jane to Landing Zone 
Betty, just below the 3d Marines headquarters. One 
Marine, Corporal William Ehrhart, with the 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines, recalled the day the Cavalry 
arrived: 

One morning, army helicopters, mostly Hueys, . . . 
just kept coming and coming and coming, dropping 
down and disgorging soldiers like insects depositing 
eggs, then flying off to be replaced by still more heli- 
copters. All day long they came. I had never seen so 
many helicopters before. I had never even imagined that 
so many helicopters existed.'** 

With the arrival of the Army brigade. Operation 
Osceola II became a one-infantry battalion operation 
under the 3d Marines and responsible only for the 
protection of the Quang Tri airfield and its imme- 
diate environs. Colonel Lo Prete moved his com- 
mand post from La Vang to Ai Tu west of the air- 
field. On 27 January, Lieutenant Colonel Gravel's 
1st Battalion, 1st Marines reverted to the control of 
its parent regiment and joined the 1st Marines at 
Phu Bai.iy 

Heat'y Fighting Along the DMZ 

There had also been a readjustment offerees in the 
central DMZ front. On 20 January, the 4th Marines, 
under Colonel William L. Dick, had taken over the 
Lancaster area of operations from the 3d Marines. 
Outside of a slight change of name, Lancaster II 
retained the same forces and mission as the old oper- 
ation. Colonel Dick and his staff moved into the 3d 
Marines' old command post at Camp Carroll and 
assumed operational control of the two battalions 



already in Lancaster, the 2d and the 3d, of the 9th 
Marines.* Artillery batteries under the operational 
control of the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines directly 
supported the infantry base areas in Lancaster: Camp 
Carroll, Thon Son Lam or Rockpile area, and Ca Lu. 
Like Colonel Lo Prete before him. Colonel Dick's 
main task was to keep Route 9 open in an area char- 
acterized by rolling hills, an occasional ravine, over- 
grown brush, streams, and dry streambeds. Still 
Route 9 was the main land logistic lifeline for the 
Marine outposts in the DMZ sector.-" 

With the move of the 4th Marines to Camp Carroll, 
the regiment's "tempo of action picked up immediate- 
ly." Upon the first night of the arrival of the regimen- 
tal headquarters and staff. North Vietnamese gunners 
fired some 30 l40mm rockets into Camp Carroll rein- 
forced by 15 rounds of 85mm artillery fire. Although 
causing relatively little damage, these turned out to be 
the first shots in a determined attempt by the North 
Vietnamese to isolate Camp Carroll and cut Route 9--' 

Four days later, 24 January 1968, elements of the 
320th NVA Dh'ision, an elite unit and veteran of the 
1954 Dien Bien Phu campaign and newly arrived in 
the DMZ sector, initiated the enemy campaign in 
earnest with an ambush of a Marine "Rough Rider " 
convoy. The convoy was on a routine artillery resupply 
mission from Dong Ha to Camp Carroll. It consisted 
of three trucks and a jeep armed with quad .50-caliber 
machine guns. Around 1330 that afternoon, when the 
trucks were about to turn into the Camp Carroll access 
road, about 3,000 meters above the Marine base, the 
North Vietnamese sprang their ambush.-- 

The enemy soldiers opened up with small arms, 
mortars, machine guns, and recoilless rifles, immedi- 
ately immobilizing all four vehicles. Using their 
weapons, including the quad .50, to defend them- 
selves, and taking what cover they could, the Marines 
with the convoy called for assistance. The 4th Marines 
sent a reaction force from Camp Carroll, consisting of a 
platoon from Company H, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines; 
two tanks, one a flame tank, from Company B, 3d 
Tank Battalion; and two Army M42 Dusters trom Bat- 
tery C, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery'. The North Viet- 
namese, however, were waiting for the reaction col- 
umn. An enemy gunner fired on the lead tank, 
stopping it with a recoilless rifle round and killing the 



'''Actually it was a battalion and a halt, as the 2d Battalion, 9th 
Marines only had two companies in Lancaster. The other two compa- 
nies were under the command of the battalion executive officer in the 
neighboring 9th Marines Kentucky area of operations. See Chapter .i. 



120 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



reaction force commander, Captain Daniel W. Kent, 
who was also the tank company commander. Again the 
Marines fought back and called for support. When two 
UH— IE gunships appeared overhead, about 1830, the 
North Vietnamese troops broke contact and disap- 
peared. A second relief column of two more dusters and 
two trucks armed with quad .50s arrived from Dong 
Ha and assisted with the evacuation of the dead and 
wounded. The Marines suffered casualties of 8 men 
dead and 44 wounded. They killed about three of the 
enemy. Not only did the vehicles of the original convoy 
require extensive repairs, but two of the dusters and the 
one tank hit by the RPG round also sustained damage. 

General Tompkins, the 3d Marine Division com- 
mander, could not tolerate this situation. It appeared 
that the North Vietnamese at will could cut Route 9 
and thus, in effect, deny access to Camp Carroll and the 
other Marine bases in Operation Lancaster. Upon learn- 
ing about the ambush, he transferred Lieutenant 
Colonel Lee R. Bendell's 3d Battahon, 4th Marines 
from the Kentucky area of operations to the Lancaster 
one and returned the battalion to its parent regimental 
control. The battalion was to clear the ambush site and 
then sweep Route 9-'^ 

On the afternoon of 24 January, Marine helicopters 
brought Lieutenant Colonel Bendell, the battalion 
commander, a skeleton battalion command group, and 
Company M to Camp Carroll. At 1900, Bendell and 
his small headquarters group accompanied Company 
M under Captain Raymond W. Kalm to the ambush 
site to assist in the evacuation of casualties. Upon learn- 
ing that the second relief force had already brought in 
the wounded and some of the bodies, the Marine com- 
pany established night positions on a ridgeline, about 
1 500 meters south of and overlooking Route 9 and also 
screening "the NVA from Camp Carroll. "^^ The next 
morning the company would begin its reconnaissance 
of the battalion's planned objective area.-"^ 

At 0630, on the 25th, the company departed its 
nighttime positions. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell advised 
Captain Kalm to occupy a small hill just north of Route 
9, about 2,000 meters south of the Cam Lo River. Alter 
sending his 3d Platoon under Second Lieutenant John S. 
Lefifen, to occupy the strategic height, the Marine cap- 
tain led the rest of the company to the ambush site 
of the previous day, about 1 ,000 meters to the west.* 



The company recovered four of the Marine dead from 
the earlier action and then began a sweep from west to 
east on Route 9- About 0915, the lead platoon had no 
sooner passed by the damaged vehicles still strewn 
along the side of the road when it came under auto- 
matic weapons fire.** With the assistance of Leffen's 
platoon left on the hill, the company obtained fire 
superiority. Lance Corporal Jack L. Patton, a machine 
gunner with the 3d Platoon, sighted the enemy gun. 
Patton later laconically stated, "my gun returned fire 
and we killed the enemy." In that action, the Marines 
sustained casualties of two dead and two wounded and 
killed three of the enemy. They also recovered the 
NVA light machine gun. ^6*** 

Company M then established a defensive perime- 
ter on the hill and waited for the rest of the battal- 
ion to join it. By mid-afternoon, both Companies I 
and L as well as the rest of the battalion command 
group had arrived. Although not suffering any more 
killed, the battalion sustained 17 more wounded 
from random mortar fire from nearby enemy gun- 
ners. That night the battalion "established a three- 
company, tied-in perimeter" across both sides of 
Route 9." 

At about 0230 on 26 January, Colonel Dick, the 
4th Marines commander, radioed Lieutenant 
Colonel Bendell that he had received intelligence of 
large North Vietnamese forces operating just north 
of the Cam Lo River. The regimental commander 
wanted the 3d Battalion to secure Route 9 from the 
Khe Gia Bridge, about 5,000 meters west of the 
battalion's present position, east to Cam Lo, a dis- 
tance of about 9,000 meters. Two companies were to 
deploy north of the river, while the remaining com- 
pany cleared the road. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell 
suggested instead that "the mission of securing the 
road was best performed along the road and south of 
the Cam Lo River." The regiment, however, insisted 
that the battalion carry out the mission as original- 
ly ordered.-'^ 

Lieutenant Colonel Bendell then prepared his 
plans and started to carry out his new orders. Com- 
panies I and L were to cross the Cam Lo and operate 



*Maj()r John S. Leffen, then the platoon commander, remembered 
some of the event.s somewhat differently. He recalled moving to the hill 
north of Route 9 the previous evening. Maj John S. Leffen, Jr., Comments 
on draft, n.d. (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter I_.effen Comments. 



* *Colonel Bendell recalled that "one Marine managed to start the 
abandoned tank and pulled all the convoy vehicles back toward Cam 
Lo." Col Lee R. Bendell, Comments on draft, n.d. [Nov94] (Vietnam 
Comment File), hereafter Bendell Comments. 

***Major Leffen, the 3d Platoon commander, recalled that the 
captured enemy weapon was a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) rather 
than a light machine gun. Leffen Comments. 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



121 




122 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



on the northern banks of the river while Company M 
secured Route 9, south of the river. The enemy, how- 
ever, forced the Marines to change the original con- 
cept of the mission. At 0845 on the morning of the 
26th, a Company M patrol discovered that the 
enemy had blown a bridge on Route 9 over a small 
streambed, just below the hill, now dubbed "Mike's 
Hill" after Company M, where the company had 
established its night defensive position. The patrol 
reported that the road was "impassable without 
engineer improvement." Just as Company I was 
about to cross the river, the regimental commander 
changed his order about operating on both banks of 
the Cam Lo.* Colonel Dick directed the battalion to 
"continue to secure Route 9, to deny enemy access to 
bridges and culverts, and to patrol and ambush 375 
meters north and south of Route 9, occupying the 
high ground on either side of the route as necessary." 
In effect, the battalion was to secure that portion of 
Route 9 that extended from the opening to Camp 
Carroll eastward to the destroyed bridge. ^9 

During the rest of the morning and afternoon of 
the 26th, the three companies patrolled the approxi- 
mately 2,000 meters of Route 9, encountering little 
resistance except for the occasional sniper and mortar 
bombardment. Throughout the day, however, the 
battalion recovered enemy equipment, including 
pieces of clothing and web gear, ammunition, 
grenades, and even antipersonnel mines and spotted 
small groups of enemy soldiers. By nightfall, con- 
cerned about the perimeter of the previous night on 
relatively low terrain. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell 
ordered the battalion to form three separate compa- 
ny defensive perimeters "on favorable high ground 
on both sides of Route 9, including Company M on 
Mike's Hill. "30 

After returning to its hill for the night. Company 
M also established several small ambush sites. The 3d 
Platoon commander, Second Lieutenant John S. Lef- 
fen, sent out an ambush squad and established a fire 
team listening post at the bottom of the hill. Accord- 
ing to Lefifen, both the squad and fire team as they 
arrived at their designated positions reported there 
were North Vietnamese soldiers all around them. 
Lieutenant Leffen pulled back the listening post, but 



left the ambush squad where it was because of its 
"tactical importance. "'' 

During the night of 26—27 January, North Viet- 
namese soldiers attempted to infiltrate the Marine 
positions through a streambed to the west of Mike's 
Hill and gullies and other streambeds to the north 
and east." On Mike's Hill, Lieutenant Leffen 
remembered that about 0500 on the morning of the 
27th, "we heard what sounded like 'wall to wall' 
NVA all around our positions." He remarked on the 
poor noise discipline of the enemy troops. Although 
the Marines could not hear the sound of the move- 
ments of the NVA soldiers, "What gave them away 
was their constant talking." A Marine mortarman, 
Frank Craven,*** with Company M several years 
later recalled, "They were at the bottom of the hill 
and we were at the middle of the hill . . . They did- 
n't know it and we didn't know it until ... we 
butted heads." According to Craven, "we heard 
some noise and then it was automatic machine gun 
fire from then on. It was terrible."'^ 

The fight for Mike's Hill would last through the 
entire afternoon and spread to Route 9 and involve all 
three companies of the 3d Battalion. On the hill, 
itself, the battle turned into a wild melee. Clamber- 
ing up three slopes of the hill, the North Vietnamese 
employed mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and 
automatic weapons to cover their advance. The 
Marines responded in kind. Lieutenant Leffen 
remembered "when we ran out of bullets we threw 
grenades and misdelivered .50 cal rounds in a variable 
and alternating fashion to keep the NVA honest until 
the helos could bring us more ammunition."" From 
an enlisted man's perspective, Frank Craven recalled 
that It was "every man for himself You still work as 
a team somewhat . . . but as far as a coordinated for- 
mal thing, all that gets wiped away. The thicker the 
battle the more informal and it was very thick." 
Craven particularly remembered one machine gunner 
at the top of the hill that kept the enemy back: "He 
just kept that area sprayed." >^ 

From a nearby hill to the east of Company M, 
Company L fired 60mm mortars and rifle rounds 
into an exposed enemy flank. Lieutenant Colonel 
Bendell, from his temporary command post on 



Colonel William L. Dick explained in his comments chat once 
the bridge was blown, "a change in plans was obviously required" 
and required a "rapid reevaluation." Col William L. Dick, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd lDec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter 
Dick Comments. 



** Colonel Bendell commented that the enemy had moved into 
attack positions under cover of darkness and that "it appeared their 
principle attack was along the road where the battalion perimeter had 
been located the night earher." Bendell Comments. 

*** Frank Craven later legally changed his name to Abdullah Hassan. 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



123 




Top photo is from the John S. Leffen Collection and the bottom is courtesy of Col Lee R. Bendell, USMC (Ret) 
The fight for Mike's Hill, named after Company M, 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, would be the pivotal battle in the opening 
up of Route 9 to Cainp Carroll in January 1968. In the top photo, the smoke from a Boeing B-32 Arclight strike on North 
Vietnamese positions can be seen from a Company Mposition on Mike's Hill. Each of the B-32 Stratofortresses could hold 27 
tons of ordnance. Below, Mike's Hill after the battle has much of its foliage destroyed. Route 9 can be seen in the foreground 
and the Cam ho River in the background. 




»-■ 





.^%^&*^. 



124 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Mike's Hill, then ordered Captain John L. 
McLaughlin, the Company L commander, to 
maneuver his company down to Route 9 and relieve 
a Company M squad surrounded by North Viet- 
namese troops at an ambush site near the destroyed 
bridge. By noon, after overcoming determined 
pockets of enemy resistance with the assistance of 
8 1 mm mortars and coordinated small arms fire from 
a Company M squad on Mike's Hill, Company L 
reached the bridge and relieved the embattled 
Marines there. In the process, the company took 
some casualties, but killed 23 of the enemy and cap- 
tured 3 prisoners. 

'With the arrival of Company L at the bridge and 
Mike's Hill now secure, the battalion commander 
directed Captain John L. Prichard, the Company I 
commander, to advance eastward along Route 9 
from his positions toward Company L, a distance of 
some 1,000 meters. Because of the nature of the ter- 
rain in the sector, open ground interspersed with 
hedgerows and heavy brush, Bendell called artillery 
fire upon enemy firing positions north of the Cam 
Lo River to cover Company Is open left flank.' 
About 200 meters west of the bridge, a well-cam- 
ouflaged and dug-in NVA company using 
streambeds and dense vegetation as cover stopped 
Company I. Failing to overcome the enemy resis- 
tance with repeated frontal assaults. Captain 
Prichard asked for reinforcements. He ordered up 
his reserve platoon from his old position and Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Bendell directed Company L to send 
one platoon to Prichard. By 1400, with the support 
of Huey gunships, the two companies had linked up 
and began the mop up. For the most part, the bat- 
tle for Mike's Hill was over.^' 

About that time. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell 
received a radio message from Colonel Dick that 
Major General Tompkins, the 3d Division comman- 
der, wanted the battalion to return to Camp Carroll. 
Concerned that the N'VA were still in force north of 
the river, Bendell failed to see the tactical advantage of 
"re-seizing terrain fought for earlier" and recommend- 
ed the battalion stay and mop up the area.^'^ After first 
ruling against Bendell, Colonel Dick and General 
Tompkins decided to permit the battalion to continue 



with the road-securing mission for another day.** By 
1700 on the 27th, "vehicles were able to move with- 
out harassment along Route 9 from both directions to 
the destroyed bridge . . . ."^^ 

After evacuating the casualties, which included the 
Company I commander, Captain Prichard, who later 
died of his wounds, Lieutenant Colonel Bendell 
formed his battalion into two companies. He placed 
Company I under the operational control of Company 
M and attached one of Company M's platoons to Com- 
pany L. According to the battalion commander, 
instead of having "three short-strength companies, " he 
now had two "full-strength" ones. During the day, the 
battalion had killed more than 130 of the enemy, cap- 
tured 6 prisoners, and recovered 3 57mm recoilless 
rifles, 2 60mm mortars, 35 AK— 47s, and extensive 
ammunition and equipment. The 3d Battalion, 4th 
Marines, however, had paid a heavy price: 21 men 
dead and 62 men wounded.'*^ 

On the 28th, the now two ad hoc companies con- 
tinued their patrolling of Route 9 with relatively little 
incident. About 1430, a Company L patrol happened 
upon a tunnel. Its entrance was three feet in diameter 
and it extended about eight feet underground. Five 
other tunnels, running east to west, intersected with 
the first one. In these tunnels were several North 'Viet- 
namese bodies, some lying on makeshift litters. The 
Marines buried the bodies and destroyed the tunnels.*** 
After completing this grisly task, the battalion 
received orders once more to return to Camp Carroll. 
Marine helicopters flew Company L to Camp Carroll, 
while the revamped Company M returned to the base 
on foot. Once the Marines were a safe distance away, 
Air Force B— 52s in an Arclight mission carpet bombed 
suspected enemy avenues of retreat and firing positions 
north of the Cam Lo River. ^9**** 



*C(jloricl Bciidc-ll retailed that he directed his operations officer 
and his artillery liaison officer "to 'seal off the battle area by artillery 
fires all along the Cam Lo River at the suspected crossing points. This 
apparently prevented reinforcements and even made retreat hazardous 
for those south of the river," Eiendell Comments. 



**Colonel Dick later wrote, "it was manifest that the battalion 
couldn't remain in the area indefinitely and there was no available unit 
for relief. In any event the position would have to be uncovered .... 
when the CG stated his wish for 3/4 to withdraw I certainly wasn't 
going to 'rule' against him but did demur to the extent that Lee [Ben- 
dell] was on the ground and in a better position to make a reasonable 
estimate of the situation, and could be brought in the following day. 
Which is what happened." Dick Comments. 

***These bodies were included in the figures of North Vietnamese 
dead listed above for the action of 27 January. 

**** Major Leffen remembered that an aerial observer "spoke 
directly to me indicating we were 'in a lot of trouble.' He . . . could see 
a column of 3's headed south toward our position as far as he could see. 
We were then told to be five clicks south of the hill by 1700." He wrote 
that the B-52s struck exactly at that time and "we could see pieces of 
the enemy in the trees following the arclight." Leffen Comments 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



125 










Both photos are courtesy of Col Lee R. Bendell, USMC (Ret) 
At top a well-camouflaged NVA foxhole was used during the fighting for Route 9- These fighting 
positions were often interconnected by a complex tunnel network. Below, the first Marine convoy 
arrives at Camp Carroll after the 3d Battalion. 4th Marines reopened Route 9- 








126 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



The following day, 29 January, the battalion rein- 
forced by tanks and Company H, 2d Battalion, 9th 
Marines returned to the destroyed bridge on Route 9- 
The mission was to provide security for an engineer 
unit building a bypass for the bridge and to open the 
road for vehicular traffic. Company L this time occu- 
pied Mike's Hill, while Company M and the tanks 
patrolled Route 9 west to the Khe Gia Bridge. Com- 
pany H, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines remained with the 
engineers at the downed span. For the most part, the 
road-clearing mission was uneventful. Enemy gunners 
once mortared Mike's Hill which resulted in two 
wounded Marines from Company L. On the road 
patrol, a nervous Marine mistakenly shot and wound- 
ed a second Marine, whom the first thought to be an 
enemy soldier. The infantry-tank patrol also came 
across 30 enemy bodies and several weapons just north 
of Route 9. At the damaged bridge site. Company H 
took two wounded North Vietnamese soldiers prison- 
ers. At 1530 that afternoon, the engineers completed 
the work on the bypass and "a huge Dong Ha convoy 
began moving through the bridge point, enroute to 
Camp Carroll." Route 9 was once more open. 

With the completion of opening Route 9, the 3d 
Battalion, 4th Marines returned to Camp Carroll, but 
remained under the operational control of the 4th 
Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Bendell sent a personal 
message to the officers and men of his command, 
thanking them for their efforts: "You may all take pride 
in a good job, well done." The following day, the bat- 
talion received a message from General Westmoreland, 
the MACV commander, complimenting "the officers 
and men of 3/4 for the aggressive attack against the 
enemy's 64th Regiment . . . This action undoubtedly 
pre-empted enemy attack against Camp Carroll.""'" 

Despite the hard-won accomplishment of reopen- 
ing Route 9, the identification of the 64th NVA Regi- 
ment had ominous undertones for the Marine com- 
mand. Intelligence officers were now sure that a new 
enemy division, the 320th NVA. had replaced the 
324B NVA Division in the western Demilitarized 
"Zone. The new division consisted of the 48th and 56th 
NVA Regiments in addition to the 64th:' All the prison- 



s-There is a minor question whether the 64th NVA was involved in the 
fighting for Route 9 from 24-29 January. According to the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion's after-action report for Lancaster II, dated over a year after the action, 
the 64tA was in reserve, while the other two regiments attacked Route 9- It 
claims that prisoners captured in the action "substantiated this intelli- 
gence." Yet, all the contemporary documents refer only to the 64li> identi- 
fied in this fighting. If the 64th was in reserve, it appears contradictory that 
the prisoners captured by the Marines would be from that regiment. 



ers captured by the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines were 
from the 64th, and most were recent draftees. This new 
enemy regiment had crossed the Ben Hai about 10 
days previously, apparently with the mission of cutting 
Route 9 and isolating Camp Carroll and the other bases 
in the Lancaster area. There was no doubt that there 
would be another attempt.^' 

A Lull in Leatherneck Square 

For Colonel Richard B. Smith's 9th Marines in 
Leatherneck Square, things had been relatively quiet. 
Because of the uncertainties of enemy intentions in the 
DMZ, on 20 January, General Westmoreland had 
agreed to a III MAF request to suspend work on the 
barrier until the situation clarified. The 9th Marines 
continued to be responsible for the defense of the A— 3 
and A-4 (Con Thien) Strongpoints just below the 
cleared trace, and their supporting combat bases. On 
the 21st, enemy gunners fired upon the 3d Battalion, 
4th Marines, then still under the 9th Marines in posi- 
tions about six kilometers northeast of Con Thien, 
with about 300 rounds of mixed caliber artillery and 
mortar rounds. The battalion sustained 10 casualties, 
all wounded. Until the end of the month, there were 
several small actions, but no major attempt of the 
North Vietnamese units to penetrate in strength the 
Marine defenses.*- 

For the most part, the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines at 
Con Thien bore the brunt of whatever enemy activity 
there was, largely continuing mortar and artillery 
bombardment. Having already lost one commander to 
enemy mortars, the 2d Battalion earlier had hopes that 
in Operation Checkers, it would leave Con Thien and 
rejoin its parent regiment, the 1st Marines. Major Gen- 
eral Tompkins, the 3d Marine Division commander, 
however, told General Cushman that "with present 
enemy threat . . . the relief of 2/1 at Con Thien is post- 
poned until after Tet."'^ 

The small hill, only 160 meters high, but less than 
two miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, remained 
a key terrain feature for the Marines and a favorite tar- 
get for North Vietnamese gunners and small infantry 
probes. Shortly after noon on 22 January, the enemy 
bombarded the Marine strongpoint with 100 rounds 
of 82mm mortar, followed by 130 rounds of 152mm 
shells from guns within North Vietnam. The battal- 
ion sustained 2 men killed and 16 wounded. One-half 
hour later, about 1 ,000 meters north of the base. Com- 
panies F and G encountered a North Vietnamese 
infantry company. The enemy unit withdrew under 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



127 



cover of 60mm mortar fire. In the firefight, the 
Marines sustained casualties of two men dead and 
eight wounded and killed three of the NVA. The fol- 
lowing night the enemy hit the Marine base again, 
but with much less force. At 2300, 40 82mm and 20 
60mm mortar rounds together with 10 rounds of 
152mm artillery shells landed within the Con Thien 
perimeter. This time the Marines sustained six 
wounded but no dead."*"* 

On 29 January, the battalion demonstrated the 
value of maintaining the Con Thien outpost despite 
the continuing harassment. About 0125, a Marine for- 
ward observer there looking through his starlight scope 
discovered a North Vietnamese convoy moving on a 
secondary road, about a 1,000 meters in the DMZ 
north of the Ben Hai River, and called in air and 
artillery missions. The observer then saw the enemy at 
a site, just below the Ben Hai, launch four to five SAMs 
(surface-to-air missiles) at the American aircraft. He 
then ran a radar-controlled (TPQ) mission on the SAM 
site. After the firing and bombing missions, the 
Marine outpost reported a "total of nine secondary 
explosions including a huge fireball, and one secondary 
fire for area of convoy and suspected SAM sites." ""^ 

While the enemy activity in the Kentucky area of 
operations remained relatively low, General Tompkins 
did not want to deplete his defenses in the sector. The 
division and 9th Marines continued to receive reports 
of enemy movement around Marine positions in the 
operation. News about the arrival of the 520th NVA 
Division on the DMZ reinforced the unease that the 
Marine commanders had about the overall situation on 
the northern front.'''^ 

The transfer of the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines to the 
Lancaster area of operations and the unexpected assign- 
ment of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines to Khe Sanh 
forced General Tompkins again to look to the Special 
Landing Force, this time SLF Alpha with BLT 2/4, for 
reinforcement. Earlier, on 22 January, BLT 2/4, under 
the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Weise, 
had relieved the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines at Camp 
Evans and had come under the operational control of 
the 1st Marines. With the takeover of Evans by the 1st 
Cavalry Division and the movement of the 1st Marines 
to Phu Bai, the BLT was once again free.* With the 
concurrence of the Seventh Fleet, Generals Cushman 
and Tompkins agreed to assign Weise s BLT the area of 
operations northeast of Con Thien, just vacated by the 
3d Battalion, 4th Marines.^^ 



*See Chapter six for operations in Thua Thien Province. 



On 26 January, BLT 2/4 reembarked from Camp 
Evans to SLF Alpha amphibious shipping and the fol- 
lowing day, in Operation Fortress Attack, deployed to 
the Kentucky area of operations. Shortly after 0900 on 
the 27th, the SLF helicopter squadron, HMM-361, 
landed the first wave of the battalion in a landing zone 
near the combat operating base, C— 2, on Route 561. 
By 1900, the entire BLT was ashore and the 9th 
Marines assumed operational control of the battalion 
from the Navy. According to plan, most of the sup- 
porting elements of the BLT including the Ontos and 
the amtrac platoons were detached and placed under 
other division commands. The following day the bat- 
talion moved from the C-2 base to its assigned new 
area of operations near Con Thien.^s 

On 31 January, General Tompkins would shift 
forces once more. He divided the 2d Battalion, 4th 
Marines into two command groups, each with two 
companies. The 3d Division commander sent Com- 
mand Group A with Companies F and G attached to 
Camp Carroll and placed it under the operational 
control of the 4th Marines. Command Group B, 
under Lieutenant Colonel Weise's executive officer, 
remained with the 9th Marines in the Kentucky area 
of operations. As Tompkins explained to General 
Cushman, he believed that the "enemy will aim a 
major effort to overrun Camp Carroll, Thon Son Lam 
[the Rockpile area}, and Ca Lu." According to the 3d 
Division commander, the "520th Division is 
admirably positioned" for such an attack which 
"offers enemy greatest return {and} more profitable 
for him than similar major effort against hardened 
positions" of the barrier strongpoints in the Kentucky 
area of operations. General Cushman agreed.^' 

The Cua Viet Continues to Heat Up 

To the east of the Kentucky area of operations, the 
North Vietnamese continued their effort to close the 
Cua Viet River channel. Following the sinking of the 
LCM on 24 January by a command detonated mine, 
the next morning NVA gunners struck again. From 
positions in the hamlet of My Loc on the northern bank 
of the river they fired rifle propelled grenades and 
recoilless rifles at a Navy convoy of two LCMs and a 
LCU (landing crafi:, utility). Both the two LCMs took 
hits and returned to the Cua Viet Port Facility The 
LCU continued on to Dong Ha. The action resulted in 
five Americans wounded, four Navy crewmen and a 
Marine from Company K, BLT 3/1- In their return fire 
at the enemy positions, the Navy gun crews inaehcr- 



128 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



tently struck Company K trying to clear the northern 
bank in Operation Badger Catch.'" 

Since coming ashore on the evening of 23 January, 
Lieutenant Colonel McQuown's BLT 3/1 began its 
mission of attempting to clear the hamlets north of the 
river. The terrain in the Badger Catch area of opera- 
tions consisted largely of sand dunes and sandy barren 
soil extending some 5,000 meters inland to a tributary 
of the Ben Hai River. This stream, unnamed on the 
maps but called Jones Creek by the Marines, ran south 
from the DMZ into the Cua Viet. Bordering both 
Jones Creek and especially the Cua Viet were extensive 
paddy areas that supported rice farming. The rice 
growers lived in hamlets on the banks of the Cua Viet 
or the adjacent area just above it. Because of the war, 
many of these hamlets were now abandoned and others 
were used as refugee centers. 

According to agent reports, the enemy force in the 
Cua Viet sector numbered about 1,200 men, consist- 
ing of three North Vietnamese companies and three 
Viet Cong companies, two main force and one local 
force. On the 24th, the BLT had secured its first objec- 
tive, a refugee resettlement village on the river about a 
1,000 meters east of My Loc without incident. It also 
had searched two hamlets to the north. Ha Loc and Ha 
Loi, again without meeting any resistance. In a separate 
operation on an island in the river. Company L had lit- 
tle success in locating any of the enemy forces that 
might have been responsible for the sinking of the 
LCM that day 51 

On the 25th, the battalion encountered much 
stifler resistance. Even the previous day, it had come 
under small arms and mortar fire from My Loc, one of 
the battalion's prime objectives. At dawn, and with- 
out preparatory fires. Captain John E. Regal, the 
Company K commander, ordered his company into 
an attack on the hamlet along a narrow front. He 
deployed one platoon to the right to form blocking 
positions north of the city. While attempting to 
maneuver around the hamlet, the blockmg platoon 
came under heavy machine gun and small arms fire. 
With this platoon caught in a deadly cross fire from 
the hamlet. Regal sent in reinforcements including 
tanks attached to him for the operation. Even with 
the tanks in support. Company K had difficulty in 
pulling out its casualties from the initial action. The 
tanks exchanged fire with enemy antitank gunners 
armed with RPGs. Although the tanks sustained five 
hits, all escaped relatively unscathed. It was about 
this time, the enemy gunners in My Loc opened up 
on the Navy convoy. About 1000, the company had 



succeeded in bringing out its dead and wounded, six 
killed and nine wounded." 

By this time. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown and 
Captain Regal had learned from nearby ARVN units 
that a NVA battalion was in My Loc. They decided to 
pull Company K back and bring in air strikes and 
supporting arms. From 1030 to 1430, Marine, Air 
Force, and Navy jets flew four close air support mis- 
sions against My Loc. Then under covering artillery 
fire, about 1 500, Company K once more moved upon 
the hamlet, this time meeting almost no resistance 
except a few occasional sniper rounds. In My Loc, the 
company recovered an RPG— 7 rocket launcher and 
the bodies of 20 North Vietnamese soldiers. The 
Marines also captured one prisoner. Later that 
evening, the company came under artillery fire from 
firing positions north of the DMZ, but sustained no 
casualties. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown selected My 
Loc for his command post and also for the battalion's 
main combat base because of the hamlet's "strategic 
location relative to river traffic."'? 

For the time being, the Marine occupation of My 
Loc appeared to confound the enemy gunners. For the 
next few days, the enemy was unable to interfere with 
the American shipping on the Cua Viet. General 
Tompkins and the commander of the Cua Viet Naval 
Support Activity also implemented increased security 
arrangements that may also have contributed to the 
safe passage of the Navy craft. The Naval Support 
Activity provided Navy crews with PRC— 25 radios 
that permitted them to communicate with Marine air 
observers flying overhead and with helicopter gun- 
ships. Moreover, the two commanders agreed upon 
check points along the river where boats could "report 
their location in relation to any enemy activity." This 
permitted the 3d Marine Division "to react to any con- 
tact with artillery, naval gunfire, air, when available, 
and ground forces in the form of USMC and/or ARVN 
Sparrow Hawk reaction forces." Finally, the two com- 
manders concurred upon the assignment of two Navy 
patrol boats on the river carrying armed Marines, two 
National policemen, and an interpreter to stop and 
search "indigenous water craft. "■" 

Despite the limited reprieve lor the Cua Viet ship- 
ping, the enemy still posed a real threat to the 3d 
Marine Division river lifeline. The fighting for My Loc 
revealed that the NVA 803d Regiment, part of the 324B 
Division, had shifted from positions in the Kentucky 
and Lancaster operational areas to the northern coastal 
plain east of Route 1. Skirting the 2d ARVN Regi- 
ment's positions at the A— 1 Strongpoint and the C— 1 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



129 




Both photos are trom the Abel Collection 
Top, a Marine fro7n Company K, BLT 3/1 carrying a Ml 9 grenade launcher runs gingerly through 
an NVA -held hamlet during Operation Badger Catch. During the same operation, below, a 60mm 
mortar team from the BLT casually prepares to fire its weapon in support of the infantry. 




130 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Combat Base, at least one battalion of the regiment 
had infiltrated between the C— 4 Combat Base manned 
by Company C, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines and the Cua 
Viet River. With the obvious mission to interaipt the 
flow of supplies along the river to Dong Ha, the 5d 
Battalion, 803d Regiment occupied those hamlets 
fronting on the river and a few just above. ^' 

For the most part, the enemy troops built rather 
formidable fortifications in these hamlets. As in My 
Loc, their first line of defense was on the edge of the 
hamlet or village. They constructed these defenses in 
depth with bunkers, fighting holes, interconnecting 
tunnels, and trench lines often extending into the cen- 
ter of the hamlet. The North Vietnamese soldiers usu- 
ally converted the villagers' "family type bomb shel- 
ters" into fortified bunkers for their own use. From the 
nature of the defenses and the skill with which they 
used them as reflected in My Loc, the enemy intend- 
ed to hold their positions unless forced out by over- 
whelming strength. 56 

For BLT 3/1 the taking of My Loc was only the 
beginning of the attempt to clear the enemy out of the 
Cua Viet sector. Several small hamlets, while not on the 
river, but just above it, provided cover for the units of 
the 805d. On the following day, 26 January, another 
company of Lieutenant Colonel McQuown's com- 
mand, Company I, encountered much the same, if not 
even more tenacious resistance, in the hamlet of Lam 
Xuan as Company K in My Loc. 

On the morning of the 26th, while Company K 
continued to secure My Loc, Captain Lawrence R. 
Moran's Company I covered the northern flank. After 
a few enemy probes and calling an air strike on Lam 
Xuan, about 1500 meters to the northwest, Moran's 
company, that afternoon, advanced upon the latter 
hamlet. Attacking from east to west. Company I at 
first met hardly any opposition. The enemy troops 
allowed the Marines to move into the first tree line 
of the hamlet before opening up. Firing from well- 
concealed positions, especially scrub brush immedi- 
ately to the rear of the Marines, the enemy, according 
to the battalion's report, "inflicted moderate casual- 
ties and . . . [caused] the attack to bog down."^^ 

Lieutenant Colonel McQuown immediately sent in 
his attached tanks and an attached Ontos platoon to 
assist the beleaguered company. Even with the tanks 
and the Ontos, the latter equipped with 106mm 
recoilless rifles, Moran had difficulty in disengaging. 
Under covering artillery fire, smoke shells, and close air 
strikes, it took the Marine company more than five 
hours to extract all of its casualties from Lam Xuan. 



With night coming on. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown 
decided to pull back Company I and concentrate the 
rest of his forces rather than continue the attack. In this 
first fight for Lam Xuan, Company I suffered 8 dead 
and 41 wounded. The Marines claimed to have killed 
17 of the enemy and taken 2 prisoners. 

The first phase of Operation Badger Catch was over. 
At 1400 on the 27th, the amphibious ready group 
commander relinquished command of the forces ashore 
to the 3d Marine Division. In turn, General Tompkins 
gave operational control of BLT 3/1 to Lieutenant 
Colonel Toner, the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion 
commander and senior to Lieutenant Colonel 
McQuown. The 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion 
remained responsible for Operation Napoleon and the 
BLT operation became Operation Saline. For Lieu- 
tenant Colonel McQuown, outside of new reporting 
procedures, his task remained the same.'s 

On the 27th, the battalion consolidated its positions 
before continuing with the attack. Lieutenant Colonel 
Toner provided the battalion with five more tanks, the 
ones detached from the SLF Alpha battalion. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Weise's BLT 2/4. At 1955 that evening, 
Lieutenant Colonel McQuown informed the amtrac 
battalion commander that he planned to attack Lam 
Xuan the following morning. 

During the night and early morning hours of 28 
January, two Marine fixed-wing aircraft carried out 
radar-controlled bombstrikes on Lam Xuan. This was 
followed shortly after 0800 by naval gunfire missions 
by Navy ships in the South China Sea. Then, support- 
ed by two tank platoons and the Ontos platoon. Cap- 
tain Edward S. Hempel's Company L took its turn 
against the Lam Xuan defenses. Despite the display of 
U.S. supporting arms, the North Vietnamese unit in 
Lam Xuan remained undaunted and relatively 
unscathed. It had constructed its bunkers and trench- 
lines with overhead covers which were, as Lieutenant 
Colonel McQuown observed, "only subject to damage 
from direct hits. "'' 

As the tanks moved up into the attack positions, 
enemy mines disabled three of them. Another fell into 
a deep bomb crater full of water and became sub- 
merged. Still with the direct fire support of the tanks 
and the recoilless rifle fire of the Ontos, Company L, 
attacking from east to west, made slow but deliberate 
progress. As the enemy resistance stiffened, Captain 
Hempel pulled his men back about noon, so that 
Marine supporting arms could work over the area once 
more. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown then reinforced 
Company L with Captain Regal's Company K. The 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



131 



two Marine companies advanced on line. Company M 
also established a platoon blocking position north of 
Lam Xuan. At dusk, under cover of North Vietnamese 
guns from north of the DMZ, the NVA troops tried to 
withdraw. With a flare plane overhead, the Marines 
continued to press the attack against the enemy. Most 
of the NVA in the hamlet, nevertheless, managed to 
make good their retreat, leaving a rear guard to hold off 
the Marines. About 2100, Companies K and L consol- 
idated their positions in Lam Xuan. The following 
morning the Marines continued with their mopping 
up. At 1445 the afternoon of the 29th, the two com- 
panies reported that Lam Xuan was "completely 
secured." The Marines, however, once more paid a price 
in casualties: 8 dead and 41 wounded. They had killed 
69 of the enemy and captured 2 prisoners.''" 

The war still continued to have its surreal qualities. 
While the fighting expanded all along the DMZ, the 
allies still prepared for the usual annual Tet truce. 
According to MACV directives, the truce period was 
supposed to extend for 36 hours beginning at 1800 on 
29 January. In the DMZ sector, BLT 3/rs fight for 
Lam Xuan made the implementation of the truce very 
unlikely. Major General Tompkins recalled that 30 
minutes before the prospective cease-fire he received a 
telephone call from General Cushman, "that exempt- 
ed the 3d MarDiv . . . from any such foolishness. It was 
to be 'business as usual' for northern I Corps. " An 
entry in the BLT 3/1 journal read, "29[Janu- 
ary]1800H— Received information that the 'Tet cease- 
fire' will not go into effect." Captain Regal, whose 
company still remained in Lam Xuan, remembered 
that he took no chances, cease-fire or no cease-fire. At 
1800, his company remained on alert and a few min- 
utes later "we again received the inevitable 40 rounds 
of incoming." Five minutes after the bombardment 
the message arrived "to disregard all previous traffic 
regarding the 'cease-fire;' it would not apply to the 
northern provinces. "'^' 

On the day of Tet, 31 January 1968, while Compa- 
ny K remained in Lam Xuan, BLT 3/1 was once more 
engaged in a struggle for another of the hamlets on the 
northern bank of the Cua Viet, Mai Xa Thi. Strategi- 
cally located where Jones Creek emptied into the Cua 
Viet, the hamlet spread over both banks of the smaller 
waterway. This time. Captain Raymond A. Thomas' 
Company M spearheaded the assault against the ham- 
let. Under cover of darkness, Thomas' company moved 
out of My Loc into attack positions just southwest of 
Mai Xa Thi. To the north. Captain Regal sent one of 
his platoons from Lam Xuan towards Mai Xa Thi, 



about 2,000 meters to the south. The plan was for the 
Company K platoon to make a diversionary attack by 
fire, while Company M made the main assault from the 
opposite direction.'' 

The Marines achieved surprise and the plan seemed 
to be working. About 0700, the Company K platoon 
opened fire from its positions north of the hamlet. 
About 15 minutes later, under cover of supporting 
artillery and morning fog. Company M moved 
through a tree line, into an old graveyard, and then 
across a rice paddy into the hamlet. The North Viet- 
namese soon recovered from their initial shock and 
fought back with RPGs, .50-caliber machine guns, 
and mortars from covered positions within Mai Xa 
Thi. The enemy even employed artillery in the Demil- 
itarized Zone against the Marines in the hamlet. With 
his right platoon heavily engaged. Captain Thomas 
attempted to call in a close air strike, but the fog had 
not lifted and the sky remained overcast.'^'' 

At this point. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown 
decided to reinforce Thomas. He sent Company I up 
the Cua Viet in LVTs to take over Thomas' left flank. 
At the same time, a platoon of LVTH— 6s, amphibian 
tractors equipped with 105mm howitzers, arrived to 
provide direct artillery support. Even with the rein- 
forcements, the Marines only made slight progress as 
the enemy continued to resist. From positions across 
Jones Creek, enemy gunners fired rocket-propelled 
grenades into the Marine flank. Marine artillery fire 
soon subdued the North Vietnamese gunners, but the 
Marine advance remained stalled. While Company I 
took over his left flank. Captain Thomas and the 
remaining three platoons had joined the right flank 
platoon. Frustrated in their attempts to force the 
enemy out of their well dug-in positions, the Marines 
needed assistance. About 1500, the two Marine com- 
panies received word to pull back as the reduced 
cloud cover now permitted an air strike. The bomb- 
ing missions proved somewhat of a disappointment 
because "of haze and many duds."''^ 

About 1600, Companies I and M returned to the 
attack. Lieutenant Colonel McQuown now sent in 
Company L to follow in trace the first two compa- 
nies. While still resisting, the enemy began to give 
way. At 1900, the three companies reported that 
they were making better progress. A flare plane 
arrived overhead and the Marines continued to 
press forward under illumination. By 2130, the 
Marines had secured about 80 percent of the ham- 
let and radioed back that "sniper fire continues, but 
organized resistance has ceased. " The following Jay, 



132 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




^(fe:-; 



The top photo is from the Abel Collection; bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo Al 90420. 
Marines of BUT 3/1 a/so sustained casua/ties during t/oe fig/oting. At top, four Marines from Com- 
pany K carry one of their wounded comrades to re/ative safety. Be/ow, Navy Corpsman HMi 
Edward F. Darewski. a/so wit/o Company K. provides a wounded Marine an intravenous so/ution. 




THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



133 







Photo is from the Abel Collection 
A BLT 5/1 platoon leader directs his men to attack enemy 
positions during Operation Badger Catch, as the enemy 
offered heavy resistance to Marine efforts to clear the hamlets 
near the Cua Viet. 

the three companies occupied all of the hamlet. In 
the fighting, the BLT sustained 12 dead and 46 
wounded. They killed 44 of the enemy and cap- 
tured 2 North Vietnamese soldiers. ^5 

From prisoner interrogation, the battalion later 
learned that Mai Xa Thi had been the command post 
of the 5d Battalion, 803d NVA Regiment. As Lieu- 
tenant Colonel McQuown observed, that despite all 
of the sophisticated intelligence sources, "BLT 3/1 
was not able to ascertain when the enemy occupied a 
given area." He therefore worked on the assumption 
that "all areas that could be occupied by the enemy" 
were defended by the enemy. According to 
McQuown, "This practice consumed time and 
resources but prevented the kind of surprise encoun- 
ters which had been costly on previous operations." '>'' 

Thus for the Marines along the DMZ front, Tet 
had little meaning. It was the same dogged fighting 
that they had encountered lor the last two to three 
weeks. There was no truce, but also there was no sud- 
den thrust through the DMZ or attack on Khe Sanh 
that the allies half-expected. The only significant 
new enemy initiatives in this period were the 
attempts to cut Route 9 and more importantly, the 
Cua Viet supply line. 



The Battle For Qnang Tri City 

While along the DMZ, 31 January was just 
another day in the war, the same was not true for 
the allied forces near Quang Tri City. In the early 
morning hours of 31 January, all of the military 
installations near the city came under either enemy 
rocket and mortar attack, or both. This included 
the 3d Marines base area in Operation Osceola II at 
Ai Tu, the 1st Air Cavalry's 1st Brigade's LZ Betty, 
and the 1st ARVN Regiment command post near 
La Vang east of Route 1. Simultaneously with the 
bombardment of the military base areas, the 812th 
NVA Regiment launched a ground attack against 
Quang Tri City. 

The 1st ARVN Regiment, not noted for its 
aggressiveness, withstood the shock of the North 
Vietnamese assault against the city. U.S. military 
advisors considered the 1st the weakest of the three 
regiments of the 1st ARVN Division. Only a few 
months previous, a 3d Marine Division message 
contained the observation that while Lieutenant 
Colonel Nguyen Huu Hanh, the commanding offi- 
cer of the regiment, had a "mediocre reputation," he 
was "not incompetent." The advisors blamed the 
"present passive" role of the regiment in support of 
the "Revolutionary Development" program of tend- 
ing "to adversely effect regiment and Hanh."''" 

It was, nevertheless, because of its participation in 
Revolutionary Development, that the 1st ARVN was 
in position to counter the thrust of the North Viet- 
namese attack. Two of the battalions, the 2d and 3d, 
were conducting security missions relatively close to 
Quang Tri City and could be called back into the city 
at very short notice. Hanh had stationed his 1st Bat- 
talion, together with the regimental armored person- 
nel carrier (APC) squadron, at a militar}' installation 
in the western suburbs of Quang Tri. Just to the 
northeast of the city, in the Catholic hamlet of Tri 
Buu, Hanh placed the 9th Airborne Battalion that 
had been sent north from Saigon and put under his 
operational control. In the city itself. Regional Force 
troops and combat police supplemented the regular 
forces. Because of these dispositions, the 1st ARVN 
Regiment could readily concentrate its forces and 
those of the local militia.''* 

The South Vietnamese had some inkling that the 
city was in some danger. Given the unsettled situa- 
tion in the north, on 28 January, General Lam, the I 
Corps commander, flew to Quang Tri City and con- 
sulted with Lieutenant Colonel Nyuven Am, the 



134 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Quang Tn Province Chief and former commander of 
the 1st ARVN Regiment. They decided to place the 
city "in a state of emergency" and also imposed mar- 
tial law. Am also provided weapons to various cadre 
and government civil serv-ants. At the same time, 
elements ot the 812th N\^A Regi»ient, which had for- 
merly been operating in the DMZ sector, infiltrated 
into the hamlets and countryside surrounding 
Quang Tri City. According to a South Vietnamese 
account, the arrival ot the enemy troops sent "thou- 
sands of local people panicking toward the city." By 
now the entire city was alert. '''^ 

The enemy failed to carry out his plan. Sappers 
were supposed to infiltrate into the heart of the city 
on the night of 30—31 January and create a diver- 
sion. Once the sappers struck, the 812th was to 
launch its attack under cover of a mortar and rocket 
barrage. The plan went awry for the North Viet- 
namese, however, almost from the beginning. A pla- 
toon from the 10th Sapper Battalion reached its 
objectives around 0200 on the 31st, but soon found 
itself isolated and easily rounded up by local police 
and militia. The 812th with five battalions under its 

Both photos are from the Abel Collection 
Top. after heavy fighting in the Cua Viet area. Marines from BLT 3/1 examine an enemy fighting 
hole with one Marine actually in the enemy position. Below. Marines from the BLT interrogate a 
frightened NVA prisoner captured in the fighting 

* I 
) 





THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



135 



M/;,-. ='*,.:..cy y , V^ 




control was more than two hours late in getting 
started. Rain-swollen streams and the unfamiliarity 
of the North Vietnamese with the terrain accounted 
in part for the delay.'" 

Unexpected resistance by the South Vietnamese 
forces also played a role. At Tri Buu, for example, the 
8l4fh VC Main Force Battalion, attached to the 81 2th 
NVA Regiment, encountered the 9th Airborne Battal- 
ion. Apparently the VC tried to take the South Viet- 
namese troops off guard by donning ARVN paratroop 
uniforms. The ruse failed when one of the 9th Air- 
borne sentries observed that the "impostors had worn 
rubber sandals rather then the genuine jungle boots." 
Despite the uncovering of the Viet Cong, the 9th Air- 
borne at Tri Buu was heavily outnumbered and had 
little choice but to fall back into Quang Tri City. By 
daybreak, the 812th had penetrated the city at several 
points, but the South Vietnamese had repulsed an 
attack on the Quang Tri Citadel and the jail. The issue 
was still in doubt at noon. 



At about this time, the civilian director of the 
CORDs organization in Quang Tri Province, Robert 
Brewer, and the senior U.S. Army advisor to the 1st 
ARVN visited Colonel Donald V. Rattan, the 1st 
Brigade commander, in his command post at LZ 
Betty. They told Rattan that the situation inside the 
city "was still highly tenuous." Brewer believed that 
at least an enemy battalion was in the city and that 
the ARVN "were badly in need of assistance." The 
North Vietnamese appeared to be reinforcing from 
the east "and had established fire support positions 
on {the} eastern and southern fringes of the city." 
Colonel Rattan agreed to provide a relief force trom 
his command."' 

Given the disposition of U.S. and South VietUiimese 
forces in the sector, Rattan had the only forces available 
that could reinforce Quang Tri City. West ol the city at 
the Quang Tri Airfield at Ai Tu, Colonel Lo Prete's 3d 
Marines in Operation Osceola II consisted of only one 
infantry battalion, some artillery, and a makcshitt 



136 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



intantr}- company composed of rear elements of the 3d 
Marine Division headquarters and support troops.* Of 
these forces, Lo Prete kept two companies of his 
infantr}' battahon deployed to the west, out to mortar 
and sniper range, to screen the vital area. Two compa- 
nies remained in reserve and the 500-man ad hoc com- 
pany guarded the perimeter Lo Prete had no men to 
spare for the defense of Qiuing Tri Cit}' which was an 
ARVN responsibility'."-""' 

Rattan also could only send a limited force to relieve 
the ARVN in Quang Tri City. Like the 3d Marines, 
Colonel Rattan had no responsibility for the defense of 
the cit\'. Looking to the eventual relief of Khe Sanh and 
to cleaning out the enemy Base Area 101, three of the 
four battalions attached to the 1st Brigade were orient- 
ed to the west and southwest of LZ Betty. With the 1st 
Battalion of the 8th Cavalry providing the only securi- 
ty for the Cavalry fire bases in the northern reaches of 
Base Area 101 and the 1st Battalion, 502d Airborne 
Infantry committed to base security at LZ Betty, Rat- 
tan had only two battalions, the 1st of the 12th and 1st 
of the 5th, "free to maneuver against the attacking 
enemy" in Quang Tri City."^ 

After consulting with Brewer and his Army advisor 
colleague and determining the most likely enemy infil- 
tration and support positions. Colonel Rattan selected 
his landing assault areas. He wanted to destroy the 
enemy supporting mortar and rocket positions and 
then block the North Vietnamese from either reinforc- 
ing or withdrawing their infantr}' units in the city. At 
1345, the brigade commander ordered the air assaults 
"as soon as possible with priority on lift assigned" to 
the 1st of the 12 th. The 1st of the 5 th would follow. At 
the same time, he alerted the 1st Squadron of the 9th 
Cavalry to fly "armed reconnaissance missions at tree 
top level" using both gunships and H-13 Aerial Rock- 
et Artillery helicopters."' 

Within two hours, by 1555, the 1st Cavalry heli- 
copters had landed five companies, three from the 1st 



* Lieutenant Colonel Karl J. Fontenot, the commanding officer of 
the 3d Tank Battalion, remembered that "we organized a provisional 
rifle company from the tank battalion, H & S Company, supplement- 
ed by about 70 men by other division elements and this went to Quang 
Tri." LtCol Karl J. Fontenot, Comments on draft, n.d. [Dec 94] (Viet- 
nam Comment File). 

**Colonel Vaughn R. Stuart, who was e.xecutive officer of the 3d 
Marines in 1968, recalled that the Marine battalion at the Quang Tri 
Air Field "functioned closely with the First Brigade of the 1st Air Cav 
after it displaced to the outskirts of Quang Tri City." As he remem- 
bered, the Marine bartalion was under the "op con" of the 1st Brigade 
for the short period the Brigade was there. Col Vaughn R. Stuart, 
Gjmments on draft, dtd 20Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



of the 5th and two from the 1st of the 12th, into land- 
ing zones east of Quang Tri. In the two central landing 
zones, straddling the rear support positions of the 
enemy K-~4 Battalion, 812th Regi?>ie>!t, Companies B 
and C of the 1st of the 12th encountered resistance 
from the very beginning. In fighting that lasted until 
2000 that night, the "surprised and confused enemy" 
employed machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles 
against the American soldiers. Between them, the two 
Air Cavalry companies accounted for over 60 of the 
enemy left: on the battlefield. Already heavily engaged 
inside the city with the ARVN troops and now in its 
rear by the two companies of the 1st of the 12th, the 
K-^ Battalion for all practical purposes was "rendered 
ineffective.""^ 

To the north, Company B, 1st of the 5th, attached 
to the 1st of the 12th for this operation, arrived in a 
relatively calm landing zone northeast of Tri Buu. 
Army Captain Michael Nawrosky, the Company B 
commander, remembered that the "little people [the 
ARVN] were in pretty good contact that night." 
Although the Company B position remained quiet 
for the most part, on two occasions enemy soldiers 
retreating from Quang Tri and Tri Buu skirted the 
company's perimeter. In both cases, according to 
Nawrosky, "we engaged with mortar, 79s, and 
machine guns, but had negative assessment that 
night." When the company searched the area the fol- 
lowing morning, Nawrosky related, "there were no 
dead; this is VC and NVA tactics in moving them 
out." Later that day. Company B joined the other two 
companies of the 1st of the 5th Cavalry in their land- 
ing zones southeast of Quang Tri City between the 
railroad and Route 1."" 

Like the two companies of the 1st of the 12th, 
Companies A and C of the 1st of the 5 th on the after- 
noon of the 31st met relatively large enemy forces 
near the village of Thong Thuong Xa just south of 
Route 1. They established blocking positions behind 
the K-6 Battalion, 812th Regiment which had attacked 
Quang Tn from the southeast. Similar to their sister 
battalion, the K~4, the K—6 found itself "wedged 
between the ARVN forces and the cavalrymen." The 
1st Brigade's scout gunships and aerial rocket 
artillery (ARA) helicopters "created pandemonium in 
the K—6 Battalion rear." According to the brigade's 
account, the NVA soldiers "were obviously complete- 
ly unfamiliar with Air Cavalry techniques of warfare." 
The ARA helicopters and gunships "experienced 
unusual success against the enemy troops." Rather 
than firing at the approaching helicopters, the NVA 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



137 



"would attempt to play 'dead.'" The brigade only lost 
three aircraft to enemy gunfire.^^ 

By the morning of 1 February, it was obvious that 
the North Vietnamese had given up on the attempt 
to take Quang Tri City. In the city itself, ARVN and 
local South Vietnamese militia and police mopped 
up. Outside the city, the Communists initiated a half- 
hearted anti-government march against Quang Tri by 
the residents of Tri Buu. The South Vietnamese 
police quickly dispersed the demonstration and by 
that evening, with support of U.S. fixed-wing air 
support, ARVN forces retook Tri Buu. For the most 
part, the North Vietnamese were now only interested 
in getting out the best they could. During the night, 
many of the NVA units broke down into small 
groups to make good their retreat. Some North Viet- 
namese soldiers tried to escape by mingling among 
the thousands of refugees now leaving the city. Cap- 
tain Nawrosky told of his company finding at least 
two North Vietnamese soldiers who "had donned 
civilian clothing over their own uniforms . . . they'd 
thrown their weapons away and they tried to get out 
wearing civilian clothes." ^s 

While the mopping up or pursuit phase contin- 
ued for several more days, most of the major contacts 
were over by 1 February. In the most significant 
action of the day, Company A, 1st Battalion, 502d 
Airborne Regiment, newly inserted into the opera- 
tion and supported by ARA and gunship helicopters, 
killed over 75 of the enemy near a large cathedral 
about 5,000 meters south of Quang Tri City. 
According to American records, the North Viet- 
namese lost over 900 men killed, 553 by the ARVN, 
and 86 captured, as well as substantial weapons and 
equipment, in their aborted attempt to take Quang 
Tri City. The allies took substantial casualties as well, 
but much less in comparison to the North Viet- 
namese.* The outcome may very well have been dif- 
ferent and caused even more complications for III 
MAF if the Cavalry's 1st Brigade had not been in 
position to have come to the assistance of the South 
Vietnamese. Still the unexpected tenacious resistance 
by the poorly regarded and outnumbered 1st ARVN 
Regiment and the local militia provided the oppor- 
tunity for the Cavalry to come to the rescue."' 



*The after-action reports and the Vietnamese accounts do not provide 
specific American and allied casualties. Department of the Army records 
show, however, that for all of Operation Jeb Stuart, not just for the battle 
of Quang Tri City, through 10 February, U.S. casualties were 58 KIA and 
303 wounded as opposed to 855 enemy dead. Dept of the Army, Opera- 
tional Summary/Brief dtd 1 lFeb68 (CMH Working Papers). 



Tet Aftermath Along the DMZ 

On the DMZ front, the North Vietnamese contin- 
ued to place pressure on the Marine units, but to a 
somewhat lesser extent than before Tet. Along the 
coast, above the Cua Viet, the 805d continued its 
efforts to cut that vital waterway. BLT 3/1 in Operation 
Saline remained the frontline battalion. Of all the bat- 
talion's units, Captain John Regal's Company K in the 
hamlet of Lam Xuan was the most vulnerable and 
exposed to an enemy attack. Having stayed in Lam 
Xuan since finally securing the hamlet on 29 January 
and having observed increased enemy activity. Regal 
believed "that something was up." On the afternoon of 
1 February, he requested and received permission from 
his battalion commander. Lieutenant Colonel 
McQuown, to move to new night positions, about 300 
meters east of Lam Xuan.^" 

Waiting until darkness so that it could not be easi- 
ly detected, the company shifted to new fighting posi- 
tions. Later that night. Regal received intelligence that 
added weight to his opinion that his company had 
been targeted by the enemy. An enemy officer captured 
in the fighting for Mai Xa Thi on the 3 1st told his cap- 
tors that the 8()5d planned a battalion-size attack 
against one of the Marine companies. Regal had no 
doubts that the company was his. 

Company K had only a short wait until the fire- 
works began. At about 0245 on 2 February, about 100 
82mm mortar rounds followed by a similar number of 
130mm artillery rounds fell into the company's former 
positions in Lam Xuan. According to Regal, "Lam 
Xuan was sparkling like a Christmas tree . . . Fortu- 
nately for us we weren't there." With additional light 
provided by a flare ship over Gio Linh that lit up the 
entire Cua Viet area, the Marines then spotted the 
enemy infantry. Captain Regal later wrote: "There they 
were; from my position, I could see the enemy walking 
from right to left in single file. They were just outside 
a hedgerow, east of the hamlet, no more than 100 
meters from our line." As the forward elements of the 
North Vietnamese unit approached the Marine posi- 
tions, they appeared confused as officers tried to 
regroup their men. Regal believed that the enemy 
"must have been going to sweep through the area into 
which we had moved after they found we had aban- 
doned the village and just stumbled into our lines." 

Regal called for an illumination round which com- 
pletely exposed the enemy troops in front of the Marine 
lines. He then gave the signal to fire. For the next few 
hours until sunrise, the outnumbered Marines of Com- 



138 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



pany K supported by Navy gunfire, mortars, and 
artiller}' repulsed repeated assaults by the NVA battal- 
ion. These attacks, however, lacked coordination and 
consisted for the most part, as described by Captain 
Regal, of sporadic rushes by small groups of NVA "in a 
fanatic attempt to penetrate our lines." They all failed.'^' 

Lieutenant Colonel McQuown sent forward some 
LVTs with additional ammunition for the company, 
but North Vietnamese artillery forced the amtracs to 
hold up. The battalion commander then ordered Com- 
pany M with two tanks to reinforce the embattled 
Marines of Company K whose ammunition was now 
running low. Arriving at daybreak and with the two 
tanks as a spearhead. Company M, supported by Com- 
pany K, launched the counterattack against the NVA. 
Like the previous actions in Lam Xuan, the fighting 
"was from hedgerow to hedgerow driving the remain- 
der of the NVA to the northwest through the area cov- 
ered by NGF [naval gunfire]." With supporting fires 
from three artillery batteries, the tanks, and a destroy- 
er offshore, the battalion reported at 1445 that after- 
noon while continuing to meet resistance, "most of 
hamlet area has been secured. Large numbers of NVA 
bodies and amounts of equipment are being found 
throughout the area." The two companies continued 
their search and collected the enemy weapons and 
equipment found upon the battlefield. At nightfall, 
the jVlarines then pulled out of the hamlet once more, 
establishing their night positions in Mai Xa Thi to the 
south. They left behind them, however, the North 
Vietnamese dead and Lieutenant Colonel McQuown 
called in "interdicting artillery and fire" on the known 
trail from the north leading to Lam Xuan. As the bat- 
talion commander later explained, he anticipated that 
the NVA "would attempt to recover the bodies." The 
American supporting fires "continued through the 
night until dawn . . . ."«- 

In the third battle for Lam Xuan, the Marines killed 
14 1 of the enemy and captured 7 prisoners at a cost of 
8 Marines dead and 37 wounded. The morning of 4 
February, Companies I and K returned to Lam Xuan 
but the NVA had departed. Of the enemy dead, the 
Marines found only nine bodies in the hamlet which 
the NVA had not dragged away. Lieutenant Colonel 
McQuown recalled that those corpses "left behind were 
still in the makeshift litters that were being used to 
carry them off" As Captain Regal later observed, "We 
had not seen the last of the 803d.""'' 

Further to the west in Operation Kentucky, Tet for 
the 9th Marines was quieter than usual. Even so, on 31 
January, Combined Action Marines assigned to hamlets 



in the Cam Lo sector reported large concentrations of 
enemy troops in their vicinity. Receiving farther intel- 
ligence that the enemy might attack the Cam Lo Dis- 
trict headquarters, south of the Cam Lo River, Colonel 
Smith, the 9th Marines commander, ordered Lieutenant 
Colonel William M. Cryan, the 2d Battalion, 9th 
Marines commander, to reinforce the Combined Action 
Company P (Papa) headquarters located there and one 
of the Combined Action platoons, "Papa" 1, in one of 
the nearby hamlets on Route 9- Cryan sent an infantry 
platoon with a detachment of Army M42 Dusters to 
the Cam Lo District headquarters compound and dis- 
patched an infantry squad to CAP Papa l.^-' 

The Communist forces struck at 02 1 5 the morning 
of 2 February with mortar and recoilless rifle bom- 
bardment of both the district headquarters and CAP 
Papa 1 compounds. At the district headquarters, the 
enemy also launched a three-sided ground assault. In 
the first ftisillade, a recoilless round killed the senior 
U.S. advisor. Army Major James C. Payne. Army Cap- 
tain Raymond E. McMacken, his deputy, then 
assumed command of the headquarters compound. 
McMacken called in artillery "to box the headquarters 
in." According to the Army captain, the Marine 
defenders "just stacked them up on the wire."* He 
recalled that "five Marines rushed across the compound 
and took over a machine gun bunker They got a .30 
[caliber] machine gun into action to kill 15 NVA on 
the wires in front of them." An enemy RPG gunner, 
however, took out the machine gun bunker, wounding 
all five of the Marines inside. One of the Combined 
Action Marines, Lance Corporal Lawrence M. Eades, 
the company clerk of CACO Papa, suddenly found 
himself a machine gunner According to Eades, "When 
we were hit, I grabbed my Ml 6 and a M60 machine 
gun and ran to my position on the northwest side of 
the perimeter" McMacken credited Eades with killing 
over 20 of the enemy. 85 

With the supporting arms including the dual 
40mm antiaircraft guns mounted on the Army M42 
Dusters, the Cam Lo compound successftilly held out 
against the attackers. In fact, the enemy troops only 
succeeded in getting through the first of the three 
belts of wire around the headquarters compound. By 



* Colonel Richard B. Smith recalled that before he took over the 
9th Marines he was the division inspector. He stated that he was "a 
great believer in wire. . . . IVIuch of my effort was to get the CAP's 
wired in and I mean heavily wired. The enemy didn't expect this and 
attackers would get hung up before realizing what was there." Col 
Richard B. Smith, Comments on draft, dtd 19Dec94 (Vietnam Com- 
ment File), hereafter Smith Comments. 



THE ENEMY OFFENSIVE IN THE DMZ AND SOUTHERN QUANG TRI 



139 



0615, a reaction force from the 2d Battalion, 9th 
Marines, including a reinforced Marine platoon and 
another detachment of Army Dusters, arrived on the 
scene. Later they were joined by another reaction force 
from Dong Ha. The Marine infantry intercepted the 
enemy attacking force attempting to recross the Cam 
Lo River north of the compound. According to the 9th 
Marines, the Americans killed 111 of the Communist 
troops, probably from the 21th Independent Battalion 
and the VC Cam Lo Local Force Company, and rounded 
up 23 prisoners.* The U.S. forces sustained casualties 
of 3 dead, two Marines and the U.S. Army senior advi- 
sor, and 18 Marines wounded. 

From a III MAF perspective. Colonel Franklin L. 
Smith described the defense of the Cam Lo District 
headquarters as a "hot little action," but successful, 
"largely through the determination of the CAP 
unit." Colonel Richard B. Smith, the 9th Marines 
commander, had a dissenting view. He believed that 
the establishment of the Combined Action units in 
the DMZ, where the people were relatively unsym- 
pathetic to the government, "a waste of time." 
According to the 9th Marines commander, he con- 
tinually had to divert line infantry units from their 
main mission of defending the strongpoints against 
the NVA to come to the rescue of the CAPs. He saw 
the Cam Lo action in that context. ^6** 

For the most part, for the next few days, the 9th 
Marines units except for the occasional bombardment 
of Con Thien had a sort of reprieve along the barrier. 
This ended on 7 February with an enemy ambush of 
Company K, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines. Shortly after 
1230, Company K's 3d Platoon, patrolling below the 
main supply route between A— 3 and A-2 just west of 
Route 1, triggered the trap. Using small arms. 



*Although the 9th Marines took several prisoners, the regiment's 
situation and intelHgence reports did not cite the specific units that 
carried out the attack on Cam Lo. On the other hand, the inteUigence 
section of the regimental command chronology shows only the above 
two units operating in the Cam Lo sector. An article in the III MAF 
newspaper claims three North Vietnamese battalions participated in 
the attack. 9th Mar ComdC, Feb68; Clipping "Cam Lo — Hub of the 
DMZ," Sea Tiger, n.d. [Feb68], End, Bendell Comments. Colonel 
Smith recalled that the 9th Marines claimed 130 enemy and 40 pris- 
oners but would not dispute the figures in the text: "I have never seen 
a body count report that I agreed with." Smith Comments. 

**In his comments, Colonel Smith further stated that outside of 
the Marines assigned to the CAP, the defenders "could not find any 
CAP people to man their guns. The position was saved by the Marines 
inside." He recalled that the senior "Army advisor , . . had called on me 
the day before for this support. He knew from his intelligence sources 
that he was going to be hit." Smith Comments. 



machine guns, and grenades in a sudden outburst of 
fire, the North Vietnamese killed nine Marines includ- 
ing the platoon commander and wounded another 
seven. With the death of the Marine officer, "confusion 
set in." Captain Donald R. Frank, the Company K 
commander, with his 1st and 2d Platoons, about 500 
meters to the north, moved to reinforce the 3d."" 

The NVA had expected the Marines to do just that 
and had set up another ambush slightly to the north of 
the first. As the 2d Platoon tried to maneuver, a hidden 
machine gun opened up, followed by small arms fire 
and then grenades. The platoon suffered 18 dead and 10 
wounded in the first five minutes of the action includ- 
ing the platoon commander and two radio operators. In 
the meantime, the 1st Platoon attempted to relieve the 
3d Platoon and succeeded in bringing out some of the 
wounded and the able bodied. After the helicopter evac- 
uation of the most serious casualties, the 1st and 3d 
joined the 2d Platoon in its shrinking perimeter. 

At the 3d Battalion, 3d Marines combat operations 
center at A— 3, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Marsh, 
the battalion commander, and Major Raymond F. 
Findlay, Jr., the battalion operations officer, monitored 
the radio. Upon being briefed on the situation by Cap- 
tain Frank, Major Findlay replied "Okay, hang on. 
We're on our way." He sent Company L to set up 
blocking positions and alerted Company M. The bat- 
talion then called for an air observer to assist in bring- 
ing in supporting arms. Flying over the ambush site, 
the observer, using the codename "Southern Comfort," 
reported: "I've never seen such a concentration of 
NVA." Remarking on an extensive NVA bunker sys- 
tem and interconnected trenches. Southern Comfort 
estimated the size of the enemy force to be between 
200 to 400 men. According to Jeff "TJ" Kelly,*" then 
a corporal, who was handling the communications 
with Southern Comfort, the "AO was running gun- 
ships on the NVA, but it was in the center of the 
bunker complex, not close to Kilo [Company K] 
where it was most needed, he could not get it closer 
because Kilo and the NVA were mixed together." "^f^ 

By late afternoon, Company L had established 
blocking positions to the southwest and engaged a 
number of enemy trying to reach the hamlet of Phu 
Tho, about 2,000 meters below A-3. Company M, 
accompanied by Major Findlay, had reached Company 



*** According to the unofficial historian ot the 3d Battalion. 3d 
Marines, Kelly's full name was Thomas Jeffrey Kelly and in Vietnam 
went by the nickname TJ. He now prefers to be called Jeff. LtCol Otto 
Lehrack, Comments on draft, dtd 290ct94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



140 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



K, dug in about 150 meters southwest of the original 
contact. Corporal Kelly, who had become the 
radioman for Company M, remembered that "Kilo's 
platoons: first, second, weapons and what was left of 
third were strung out in a tactical withdrawal. " Major 
Findlay consulted with Captain Frank. According to 
Corporal Kelly, the Company K commander 
"wantCed] to go back in ... we have people in there." 
With heavy rain and low cloud ceiling precluding any 
more air support and well-entrenched enemy, Findlay 
decided against an immediate assault: "We're going to 
pull back .... Come first light we're going to get 
some more firepower in here and go after them." 

During the night, Company L returned to A-3 
while Companies K and M established a two-company 
defensive perimeter west of Route 1 near Gio Linh. 
The 12th Marines provided heavy supporting fires 
around the two exposed companies. Corporal Kelly 
remembered that it was a wet "miserable night . . . 
{and] rain swirled into the hole chilling us ..." At the 
end of the long and comparatively uneventRil night, 
the Marines prepared to renew the attack. A detach- 
ment of tanks from Gio Linh joined the two companies 
and the Marine artillery opened up with their prepara- 
tory fires upon the enemy entrenchments. 

Under cover of the Marine artillery bombardment 
followed by Huey gunship strafing runs, on the morn- 
ing of 8 February, the two Marine companies crossed 
Route 1 into a small woods that contained the NVA 
entrenchments. As Kelly observed: "It was all grunts 
now. " The NVA suddenly began to panic and bolt. 
Corporal Kelly later described the Marine attack: 

Now Kilo was the grim reaper, killing anything that 
moved as they assaulted through the North Vietnamese 
trenches and bunkers in a tactic so simple and direct I 
was amazed by its effectiveness. Their firepower was a 
wave of destruction surging before them, overwhelming 
the enemy. It was over quickly.^' 

Other members of the battalion remembered the 
events of that morning less melodramatically. Captain 
Otto J. Lehrack, the commanding officer of Company 
I, later wrote that his recollection was that Company 
K "did launch an assault, supported by tanks from Gio 
Linh, but by that time there wasn't much of an enemy 
force left and it was pretty much of a walk." Accord- 
ing to Lehrack, the company sergeant of Company K, 
Gunnery Sergeant Jimmie C. Clark, later told him: 
"What NVA was left in the holes were chained to 
their guns ... so they couldn't get up and run." Clark 
went on to state: "We went in and retrieved our own 
and brought our own people out. . . . We were pretty 



beat and torn up, but we had to do it."'"' 

During the two-day fight, casualties were heavy for 
both sides. The Marines claimed to have killed 139 of the 
enemy, but sustained a total of 30 Marine dead and 35 
wounded. Some of the wounded were from the previous 
two ambushes and perilously survived the night among 
the North Vietnamese. One American survivor related 
that an English-speaking North Vietnamese soldier 
called out "Corpsman, I'm hit," and then shot the Navy 
medic when he came to assist. Another Navy corpsman. 
Hospital Corpsman 3d Class, Alan B. Simms, who 
remained unscathed, hid and tended four wounded 
Marines, saving their lives. At least four of the North 
Vietnamese soldiers blew themselves up with grenades 
rather than surrender. After helicopters evacuated the 
American wounded from an improvised landing zone, 
the Marine infantry loaded the American dead and North 
Vietnamese gear upon the tanks. According to Kelly: 

It was absolutely quiet except for the groans of the 
loaders and the sounds made by the bodies of the dead 
being dragged to the tanks. They were stacked four 
high — one on his back, the next on his stomach — the 
heads and arms placed between the legs of the body 
underneath to lock in the stack and prevent it from top- 
pling. . . . The tank crews watched in horror. 

The tanks returned the bodies to Gio Linh and the 
infantry returned to A-3.y' 

Once more, the war along the DMZ for another 
brief period went into one of its customary lulls. Con- 
trary to General Tompkin's expectations that the 
North Vietnamese would make their major effort in 
the Camp Carroll/Rockpile/Ca Lu sector, the 4th 
Marines in Lancaster had few flareups of any significant 
action. The enemy made no significant attempt to cut 
Route 9 after the fighting for "Mike's Hill." Outside of 
an artillery bombardment on Camp Carroll on 2 Feb- 
ruary, and an attack on a truck convoy a week later, the 
Lancaster sector remained quiet during the first two 
weeks of February. While maintaining pressure all 
along the DMZ front, the NVA largely limited their 
Tet offensive in the north to the disruption of the Cua 
Viet supply line, which apparently was intertwined 
with the attack on Quang Tri City. As captured enemy 
documents later indicated, North Vietnamese com- 
manders attributed their failure to take Quang Tri City 
to their inexperience with the coordination of large 
forces that involved two major commands: The DMZ 
Frimt and the Tri Tbieu Hue Front:'- This failure of coor- 
dination characterized the entire enemy Tet offensive 
and was especially true of the enemy attacks in the Da 
Nang area further south. 



CHAPTER 8 

The Tet Offensive at Da Nang 

Allied Dispositions — The Enemy Plans His Offensive — The Attack — The Fighting Continues 

A Brief Li/ll and Reneived Fighting 



Allied Dispositions 

By the time of Tet, Operation Checkers had ended 
and at Da Nang the situation was precarious. With the 
departure of the 5th Marines, there was only one 
Marine infantry regimental headquarters in the exten- 
sive Da Nang tactical area of operations. Colonel Ross 
R. Miner's 7th Marines with all three of its battalions 
had the responsibility for the northern, western, and 
southwestern sectors. The 2d Battalion was in the 
north, the 1st Battalion was in the center, and the 3d 
Battalion was in the south. With the departure of the 
2d Battalion, 5th Marines in mid-January for Phu Bai, 
the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines extended its area of oper- 
ations to include An Hoa to the south. Colonel Miner 
attached two additional companies to the 3d Battal- 



ion — Company L, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines and 
Company H, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines — to cover its 
extended area.' 

A conglomeration of Marine support units, ARVN, 
Korean Marines, and two Marine infantry battalions 
attempted to secure the remaining area. In the Da 
Nang Vital Area, the artillery regiment, the 11th 
Marines, continued to oversee the Northern Sector 
Defense Command and the 1st Tank Battalion, the 
Southern Sector Defense Command. In both these sec- 
tors support troops doubled as infantry, manning fixed 
defensive positions and conducting patrols. Major 
General Donn J. Robertson, the 1st Marine Division 
commanding general, kept under his direct control the 
3d Battalion, 5th Marines and the 2d Battalion, 3d 
Marines. Located between the Cau Do and Thanh Quit 



A U.S. Marine amphibian tractor from the 5 d Amphibian Tractor Battalion transports Korean 
Marines during a sweep operation mar Hoi An. The tractor is armed with a 106mm recoilless rifle. 

Photo is from the Abel CollcLtion 




Ul 



142 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Rivers and on either side of Route 1, the two battalions 
provided the last line of defense before the so-called 
"Vital Area." The most eastern of the battalions, the 
2d, shared its area with the 3d Amphibian Tractor Bat- 
talion, which was responsible for the coastal sand flats 
south of Marble Mountain. Below the Marine battal- 
ions, the Korean Marine Brigade secured the Hoi An 
sector and the southeastern approaches above the Ky 
Lam River to the Da Nang base. Behind the Marine 
and Korean lines, the 5 1st ARVN Regiment deployed 
in support of the South Vietnamese Revolutionary 
Development program. With both fixed-wing and 
helicopter gunships and more than 120 artillery pieces 
ranging from 4.2-inch mortars to 175mm guns. Gen- 
eral Robertson was confident that he could counter any 
threat that the enemy posed to Da Nang despite the 
thinness of his manned defenses. - 

In the Da Nang sector, the tempo of operations had 
picked up during the last weeks of January. The Kore- 
an Marines, while not finding any sizeable forces, con- 
tinued to encounter small enemy units and boobytraps 
which took their toll. In the 7th Marines sector, the 
Marines described the same type of activity as well as 
increased enemy infiltration. The 3d Battalion, 5th 
Marines reported "a definite increase of enemy harass- 
ment" and the movement of sizeable enemy units into 
the Go Noi Island area. Lieutenant Colonel William K. 
Rockey, the 3d Battalion commander, commented on 
the "increasing frequency and ferocity" of enemy con- 
tacts. He remembered that because of the number of 
casualties his battalion sustained, "it was necessary to 
employ administrative personnel on patrols" with 
"clerks, cooks, and drivers" on line. In one operation 
near Dien Ban, the 51st ARVN Regiment sustained 
losses of 40 men killed, 6 missing, and 140 wounded 
while accounting for about 80 enemy dead and 13 pris- 
oners. As Igor Bobrowsky, a former Combined Action 
member of Delta 2 near the village of Thanh Quit, 
recalled this period: "It wasn't that something hap- 
pened ... It was just that the intensity of what was 
going on kept on increasing, increasing, increasing."^ 

While activity in the Army's Americal Division 
areas of operations in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin was 
somewhat diminished, there was enough enemy in 
northern and central I Corps to cause concern for both 
the American and South Vietnamese commands. On 
27 January, General Westmoreland announced a cease- 
fire to be observed by allied forces for 36 hours begin- 
ning at 1 800 on 29 January in honor of the Tet holi- 
days. Although authorizing the cease-fire, he warned 
all American commanders to be unusually alert 



because of "enemy increased capabilities." At 1700 on 
29 January, Westmoreland canceled the truce in the 
DMZ and the entire I Corps sector. '■ 

Major General Robertson remembered that "the 
Cease-fire was to be in effect . . . and the regimental 
commanders reported intense fire from the enemy and 
requested authority to continue artillery fire, if neces- 
sary . . . . " Robertson granted the request and then 
"about 1840 we got the word from III MAP that the 
cease-fire had been called off.""" 

The Enemy Plans His Offensive 

For some time, the American forces had been aware 
that the enemy was about to launch some type of major 
offensive. General Westmoreland was convinced that 
this big push would come either just before or right 
after Tet — but not during the holidays and probably at 
Khe Sanh and in the DMZ sector. At Da Nang, III 
MAP knew that the Communists were on the move. 
Marine and Army reconnaissance flights using infrared 
technology and XM-3 "People Sniffer" airborne per- 
sonnel detectors (APD) mounted on Huey helicopters 
indicated strong enemy concentrations in the hills near 
Hieu Due west of the 7 th Marines. Lieutenant Colonel 
William J. Davis, the commanding officer of the 1st 
Battalion, 7th Marines, recalled that his unit began to 
take fewer casualties from surprise firing devices or 
boobytraps and began to suspect that enemy troops 
unfamiliar with the terrain might be attempting to 
move into his sector. Davis notified the division head- 
quarters of his findings. According to Davis, a few 
hours later. General Robertson called a division brief- 
ing for all battalion commanders. At the briefing, the 
division G— 2 or intelligence officer, told the assembled 
officers that "they are finally going to come out and 
fight. We don't know why, but we know they are!" He 
later confided to Davis, "Bill, your phone call was right 
on the money! I called all the regiments and battalions 
and the same was happening to them."'^ 

On the evening of 28 January, just west of Hieu 
Due, a Marine squad from Company C, 1st Battalion, 
7th Marines ambushed a three-man Viet Cong recon- 
naissance patrol. The Marines killed two of the enemy 
and wounded the third. The Marines evacuated the 



* Lieutenant Colonel John F. J. Kelly, who was an intelligence offi- 
cer on the III MAF staff, commented that General Westmoreland can- 
celed the truce at "the request of LtGen Cushman, who also requested 
that the announcement be held until six hours before the scheduled 
beginning of the truce so as not to tip III MAF's hand." LtCol John F. 
J. Kelly, Comments on draft, dtd 13Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



143 



survivor to the Naval Support Activity hospital 
where he died of his wounds. Before his death, how- 
ever, the Vietnamese identified himself as Major 
Nguyen Van Lam, the commanding officer of the 
R-20 Doc Lap Battalion. From the recovery of Lam's 
notebook and a detailed sketch map of Hill 10, the 
location of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines' command 
post, the R—20 commander was obviously on a explo- 
ration mission to discover any vulnerability in the 
Marine battalion's defenses.^* 

From other sources, the Marine command learned 
of other ominous measures taken by the Communist 
forces in the Da Nang sector. According to intelli- 
gence reports, on 15 January, Group 44, the forward 
headquarters of Communist Military Region 3, 
moved from the hills in western Quang Nam, to an 
advance position on Go Noi Island. On 29 January, 
Marine intelligence officers received a reliable report 
that the 2d NVA Division also had established its 
command post in western Go Noi. According to 
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Stuart N. Duncan, 
assigned to the 5th Counterintelligence Team, a 
Combined Action unit in the northern Da Nang 
area, a few days before Tet, killed a VC who tried to 
hide in a tunnel. The CAPs found several documents 
on the body and in the tunnel which the man obvi- 
ously had used as his base of operations. In his last 
report, the Communist agent wrote, "I have been 
discovered and mission not yet completed." From 
the details of the other recovered documents, the VC 
obviously were making an extensive reconnaissance 
of the Da Nang area. His notes contained descrip- 
tions of military structures, distances, weapons, and 
other information that would be of value to an 
attacking force. '^ 

Additional intelligence tended to confirm the 
enemy was about to initiate something big. The 
ARVN 51st Regiment operating in the southern 
sector of the Da Nang area of operations came across 
evidence including documents pointing to a 
buildup of Communist strength together with 
probes of allied defenses. On 29 January, a local vil- 



* Colonel Davis, the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines commander, wrote 
that, according to the interrogation of another prisoner, Major Lam, if 
he had not been killed would have become an advisor to the 31st NVA 
Regiment, also known as the }d NVA Regiment, for terrain and opera- 
tions. Another prisoner claimed that Lam Was the chief of staff for the 
NVA regiment. Col W. J. Davis, Tet Marine, An Autobiography (San 
Diego, CA, 1987), pp. 117-18, End to Col William J. Davis, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 2Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Davis, 
Tet Marine. 



lage chief told the security officer of the Naval Sup- 
port Activity at Camp Tiensha that about 300 VC 
would attack the Marble Mountain transmitter that 
night. That same day, the 1st Marine Division noti- 
fied III MAF that "usually reliable sources" told of 
staging areas south of Da Nang for an impending 
attack. Finally, according to Marine intelligence 
officers, another "very reliable source" flatly stated 
"that the time of attack throughout MR (Military 
Region) 3 would be" at 0130 and no later than 0200 
on 30 January.'' 

The Communist forces throughout South Vietnam 
were about to strike. In I Corps, the allies learned 
from a defector that the enemy planned an attack 
against Quang Ngai City. According to this former 
member of the VC 401st Regimental Security Guard, 
local Communist cadre stated that "the war had last- 
ed too long and the Front had to seek a good oppor- 
tunity to stage a great offensive that would bring the 
war to an early end. ' Further, the South Vietnamese 
National Police reported that Viet Cong local leaders 
from Quang Tin, Quang Nam, and Quang Ngai 
Provinces met in a base area in the hills of northern 
Quang Ngai to plan attacks on Chu Lai and on 
Quang Ngai City"' 

While the Communists concentrated their forces 
for the large offensive, many of these units suffered 
from too many rapid replacements and in some cases 
from poor morale. As the defector from the 401st 
later revealed, his unit lacked "weapons, experienced 
soldiers, and transportation manpower." He personal- 
ly believed the plans were impractical and deserted at 
the first chance he had. Another Communist soldier, 
who infiltrated from North Vietnam after receiving a 
year's training as a radioman in Hanoi, was thrust 
into one of the attacking battalions south of Da Nang 
so hastily that he never learned the name of his unit 
let alone those of his officers. Two members of a VC 
engineering company, also in the Da Nang area, later 
recounted that nearly 80 percent of their unit was 
from North Vietnam. The Communists obviously 
were bringing the local VC main force units up to 
strength, even if to do so they had to bring in 
replacements from the north. For example, while the 
enemy R—20th attempted to maintain a full comple- 
ment of 400 men through the recruitment or 
impressment of local villagers and infiltration of 
North Vietnamese "volunteers," intelligence sources 
rated the unit only "marginally effective."" 

Throughout the Da Nang area of operations, the 
enemy began to move into attack positions. In addition 



144 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



to the R-20 VC Battalion, south of Da Nang, the 1st 
VC and 5d NVA Regiments' both part of the 2d NVA 
Division started to deploy toward Go Noi Island. Ele- 
ments of the 368B NVA Rocket Artilleiy Regiment were 
in firing positions to the west and northwest of the 7th 
Marines. Other units included the 402d Sapper Battal- 
ion, the V-25th VC Battalion, and other VC local forces. 
A warning order and plan prepared by the Communist 
Da Nang City Committee called for a preliminary 
attack on the city by sappers and VC troops. The attack 
force would consist of two groups, one to move by land 
and the other by water to knock out the bridge sepa- 
rating the city from Tiensha Peninsula and to capture 
the I Corps headquarters. This would be followed by a 
rocket barrage and an assault by the main force units 
on allied military units and installations. Within the 
city itself, VC cadre were to force the "inhabitants into 
the street for demonstrations . . . and prepare the peo- 
ple for continuing political struggle against the gov- 
ernment as well as kill GVN and ARVN cadre. "'- 

Before the Communist forces launched their attack, 
the commanders prepared to read to their troops a 
directive supposedly prepared two weeks earlier by the 
Presidium of the Central Committee of the National 
Liberation Front. The Front announced that the 1968 
Tet greeting of "Chairman Ho [Chi Minh} is actually a 
combat order for our entire Army and population." 
The soldiers and cadre of the "South Vietnam Libera- 
tion Army" were to move forward in the attack; 

The call for assault to achieve independence and lib- 
erty has sounded; 

The Truong Son and the Mekong River are moving. 

You comrades should act as heroes of Vietnam and 
with the spirit and pride of combatants of the Libera- 
tion Army. 

The Victory will be with us.'^ 

The Attack 

By evening on the 29th, the 1st Marine Division at 
Da Nang was on a 100-percent alert. During the day, 
the division had positioned 1 1 reconnaissance 
"Stingray" patrols along likely enemy avenues of 



* There is some confusion, probably deliberate on the part of the 
North Vietnamese, on the designation of the regiments, especially the 
i<^of the 2d NVA Division. According to Marine records the 3d NVA 
was also known as the 31st NVA Regiment. There was also an indepen- 
dent 31st NVA Regiment that also infiltrated into the western Da Nang 
TAOR. Although an attempt has been made to use 3d NVA when 
referring to the regiment that was part of the 2d NVA Division, the 
records do not always differentiate between the two. FMFPac, 
MarOpsV, Feb-May68. 



approach. At l600, one of the Stingray units, using the 
codename "Saddle Bag," situated in the mountains just 
south of a bend in the Thu Bon River below An Hoa, 
about 20 miles southwest of the Da Nang base, report- 
ed observing about 75 enemy soldiers wearing helmets 
and some carrying mortars. The 11 th Marines fired an 
artillery mission with unknown results. About 50 
minutes later, another recon team, "Air Hose," about 
2,000 meters to the northeast of "Saddle Bag," saw 
more than 50 enemy troops moving eastward. The 
artillery fired another salvo, which caused a large sec- 
ondary explosion. At 1920, in the same general area, 
still another Stingray patrol, "Sailfish," radioed that 
about 200 Communist troops, some carrying 40mm 
rocket launchers, passed its positions. Again the 
artillery responded with "excellent effect on target." 
Because of an air observer on station, the Marine gun- 
ners checked their fire. At that point, three fixed-wing 
aircraft and four helicopter gunships then bombed and 
strafed the enemy column. Darkness prevented "Sail- 
fish" from observing the number of casualties that the 
artillery and air inflicted upon the enemy.'-'" 

At Da Nang, the Marines remained tense. One 
experienced Marine noncommissioned officer, serving 
in his third war. First Sergeant Jack W. Jaunal of the 
Headquarters and Service (nicknamed "Heat and 
Steam") Company, 3d Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 
located below Marble Mountain, recorded his impres- 
sions. He remembered that before midnight "the alert 
sounded, and it was all hands to the wire [manning 
defensive positions}. ' Although Jaunal's sector 
remained relatively quiet, he recalled that "we could 
see flashes of other areas being hit" and heard mortars 
and rockets: "The Marine helicopter strip [Marble 
Mountain] two miles to our north got hit . . . Also Da 
Nang Airfield got it."" 

Major General Raymond L. Murray, the III MAF 
deputy commander, remembered that he heard a "hell 
of a lot of racket" and "woke up . . . [to] the airfield at 
Da Nang . . . being rocketed." At first, the general and 



** Colonel Broman C. Stinemetz, who as a lieutenant colonel, com- 
manded the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, related that "in pteparation 
for the Tet stand-down the 1st Recon Battalion deployed the largest 
numbet patrols ever at one time. These covered the mountainous 
remote zone west of the Amencal Division extending along a line 
northward up to and including that high ground west of Task Force X- 
Ray. The collective impact of these patrols, operating in either the 
Sting Ray — or intelligence gathering — mode, significantly lessened 
the enemy effectiveness in the 1st Marine Division TAOR during the 
Tet offensive." Col Broman C. Stinemetz, Comments on draft, dtd 
2Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



145 



his steward confused the rockets with the traditional 
fireworks shot off in honor of Tet. Soon reports came in 
that the base was under attack and a Marine hehcopter 
flew the general from his quarters to III MAF head- 
quarters.* According to Murray, "... from then on 
until Tet was over, there were just constant attacks. "'^ 

The 1st Marine Division commander. Major Gener- 
al Robertson later compared the enemy activity that 
night to a "10-ring circus." In the Da Nang sector, dur- 
ing the early morning hours of 30 January, Communist 
gunners took under mortar and rocket fire 1 5 different 
allied units and installations. On the ground, several 
enemy infantry and sapper units of varying size probed 
and attacked various Marine and allied defenses 
throughout the TAOR. Shortly after midnight. Marine 
sentries from the 1st MP Battalion, posted near the 
main I Corps Bridge connecting Da Nang to the Tien- 
sha Peninsula, spotted two swimmers near the span. 
They fired, killing one of the enemy underwater demo- 
lition team, while the other member surrendered to the 
Marines. About 0100, a Marine platoon from Compa- 
ny G, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, positioned near the 
Route 1 Bridge crossing the Cu De River north of Da 
Nang, saw another two enemy on a raft with a wood- 
en box. Again, the Marines killed the VC and once 
more foiled an apparent enemy demolition effort. Two 
and a half hours later, on the other side of the main Da 
Nang Bridge, Armed Forces police noticed two VC in 
the water and several sampans approaching. The MPs 
shot one of the swimmers, took the other man prison- 
er, and drove off the boats with a flisillade of bullets. 
Once more the enemy failed to cut the main lines of 
communication into Da Nang.'^ 

About 0230, the enemy struck the perimeters of 
the Da Nang base itself. In the Southern Sector 
Defense Command, just north of the Cau Do River 
and west of Route 1, an enemy 12- or 15 -man sapper 
squad blew a hole in the defensive wire of the joint 
perimeter of the 7th Engineer and 7th Communica- 
tions Battalion. The enemy troops attacked a Marine 
bunker and ran through the Communications Support 
Company area throwing grenades and satchel charges 
in the living quarters. The only Marine casualties were 
two men who failed to vacate their "hootches" in time. 



*General Earl E. Anderson, who as a brigadier general was the III 
MAF Chief of Staff, recalled that General Murray at this time was liv- 
ing at the beach house. Because of security concerns after the Tet 
attack, General Murray moved into the bachelor officer quarters with 
him. They each had a bedroom and bath and shared a sitting room. 
Gen Earl E. Anderson, Comments on draft, dtd 18Dec94 (Vietnam 
Comment File). 




Abel Collection 

The Da Nang Air base comes under VCINVA rocket attack 

on the night of 29-50 January 1968. Flares light up the 

sky. top, as raging fires caused by the rockets burn out of 

control on the ground, illuminating parked aircraft on the 

airfield, bottom. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A 190366 




146 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Manning defensive positions, the Marine communica- 
tors and engineers repelled the attacking force, killing 
four of the VC. Enemy gunners then replied with a 
mortar barrage, which resulted in two Marine dead 
and two wounded. '« 

A half-hour after the assault on the 7th Communi- 
cation Battalion, the enemy hit even closer to the 
Marine command nerve center at Da Nang. Another 
enemy sapper squad, about the same size as the one 
that carried out the earlier attack, penetrated the 1st 
Marine Division Subsector Bravo combat operations 
center and communications facility on Hill 200, less 
than 1,000 meters from the main command post on 
"Division Ridge" (Hill 327). Employing small arms 
fire, satchel charges, rocket propelled grenades, and 
bangalore torpedoes, the enemy troops thrust through 
blown gaps in the Marine wire. The communications 
bunker bore the brunt of the enemy attack where the 
sappers destroyed both the bunker and the equipment 
inside and "put the division tactical net off the air until 
0400." Headquarters Marines quickly manned their 
defenses and called in artillery illumination and a fire 
mission. The Northern Sector Defense Command 
rapidly assembled its reaction company and deployed 
one platoon to the division command post. Two other 
platoons took up positions around nearby hills 244 and 
200. In the assault, the Communists killed four 
Marines and wounded another seven before withdraw- 
ing. At first light, a Marine reaction force found enemy 
blood trails. Major General Robertson later praised the 
Security and Communications platoons of the 1st 
Marine Division Headquarters Battalion for their 
efforts in the defense. He pointed to the rapid reaction 
of the Security Platoon in reinforcing the perimeter 
and providing a mobile reserve and "the off-duty per- 
sonnel from the bunker and staff sections for their pro- 
vision of security of the immediate bunker area."i9 

At 0330, about one hour afiier the sapper attack on 
the Marine command post, enemy forces launched an 
assault against General Lam's I Corps headquarters. 
Under cover of darkness, elements of the VC R—20th 
and V-23th Battalions had crossed the Cau Do River 
and penetrated the Hoa Vang village complex. With 
covering fire provided by 81mm and 82mm mortars, 
about a reinforced company reached the I Corps head- 
quarters compound actually located within the city of 
Da Nang just outside the northern perimeter of the 
main airbase. The enemy attacked the compound from 
two directions, from the south and the east. From the 
south, about a dozen of the enemy used boards to cross 
the outer wire and ladders and boards to clamber over 



the compound wall into the courtyard below. An alert 
ARVN sentry took the VC under fire near the flagpole. 
Four ARVN armored personnel carriers reinforced by a 
reconnaissance squad maneuvered to contain the 
attackers. A conglomeration of internal security forces 
threw back the enemy force from the east that tried to 
use similar tactics to get inside the compound from 
that direction.-" 

Colonel Nguyen Duy Hinh, who was acting Chief 
of Staff, I Corps, at the time, remembered that he had 
earlier that night received a call from the South Viet- 
namese Joint General Staff alerting the command to 
expect "an increased surge of activities" by enemy 
forces. After informing General Lam and issuing 
instructions to subordinate units to be on special alert. 
Colonel Hinh returned to his quarters about 500 
meters from the main headquarters building. About 
0330, the colonel woke up to the sound of battle. From 
his bedroom window, he could see tracers lighting up 
the nighttime sky. He quickly picked up the phone 
and called General Lam and told him that the head- 
quarters was under enemy attack. An incredulous I 
Corps commander gave the equivalent reply in Viet- 
namese to "baloney! baloney!," but, nevertheless, hur- 
riedly dressed and prepared to depart for his headquar- 
ters, which was some distance from his house.-' 

The fighting within the compound continued until 
daylight. After their breaching of the outer defenses, 
the enemy squad fired B-40 rockets at the headquarters 
building, but then fought a delaying action, waiting 
for reinforcements. These reinforcements never came. 
The bulk of the enemy attack force remained in Hoa 
Vang Village bogged down in a firefight with local PF 
and Regional Force troops reinforced by a Combined 
Action platoon, E-3. Viet Cong gunners from Hoa 
Vang, nevertheless, maintained an intermittent mortar 
bombardment upon the I Corps tactical operations 
center. Shortly after 0445, General Lam ordered the 
4th ARVN Cavalry Regiment, a Ranger battalion, and 
a detachment of National Police to augment the South 
Vietnamese militia units in Hoa Vang and the head- 
quarters personnel forces in the compound.-- 

III MAF also sent reinforcements. Lieutenant 
Colonel Twyman R. Hill's 1st MP Battalion operated 
directly under III MAF and was responsible for the 
"close-in defense" of the Da Nang Airbase, the two 
bridges between Tiensha Peninsula and the main air- 
base, and the Naval Hospital on the Tiensha Peninsu- 
la. The MP commander remembered that he received 
a telephone call at 0345 on the 30th from Colonel 
Thomas L. Randall, the III MAF G-3, who asked him 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



147 



"to send three platoons to blocking positions south of I 
Corps headquarters." With one of his companies on the 
Tiensha Peninsula and the other three protecting the 
main airbase perimeter, Hill argued that he could not 
spare three platoons. He and Randall agreed that they 
would deploy one of the battalion's two reserve provi- 
sional Quick Reaction platoons composed of headquar- 
ters personnel. This platoon under First Lieutenant 
John E. Manning departed the airbase about 0415 and 
arrived in the blocking positions about 0515.-^* 

About a half-hour later, the 1st Division learned 
that the enemy squad in the headquarters compound 
had disengaged and took its casualties with it. In this 
fighting, which had lasted about three hours, the South 
Vietnamese defenders sustained casualties of three 
dead, seven wounded, and two damaged armored vehi- 
cles. The skirmishing south of the headquarters near 
Hoa Vang, however, continued. Mortars and recoilless 
rifle rounds continued to land inside the headquarters 
compound from enemy firing positions in Hoa Vang. 
General Lam arrived at the headquarters compound 
shortly after dawn. After a quick appraisal of the situa- 
tion, the I Corps commander turned to the senior U.S. 
advisor at the I Corps Tactical Operations Center, 
Army Major P. S. Milantoni. According to Washington 
Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer, Lam pointed with 
his swagger stick to the enemy's firing positions on the 
large map in the room and said: "Milantoni, bomb 
here. Use big bombs." The U.S. major remonstrated 
that the site was relatively close to the compound, but 
Lam insisted that the air strikes be flown. Milantoni 
relayed the request to the air support center. The Air 
Force watch officer on duty protested, "that's too close, 
you'll never get a clearance for it." Major Milantoni 
replied, "General Lam just gave it."-' 

Shortly afterwards. Marine fixed-wing aircraft and 
helicopter gunships blasted the enemy in Hoa Vang. 
This apparently broke the back of the VC resistance. 
Under pressure from the Vietnamese relief forces and 
the Marine MP platoon, the enemy retreated with the 
allies in full chase. In the initial fighting for Hoa Vang, 
the South Vietnamese and Americans accounted for 25 
enemy dead. In the pursuit, which amounted to a rout, 
the VC lost nearly 100 dead. In the attack on the I 
Corps headquarters and in the defense of Hoa Vang vil- 



*In his comments, Colonel Hill stated that he deployed only one 
of his reserve platoons. The battalion's monthly report, however, indi- 
cates that both platoons may have eventtially moved into the blocking 
positions south ot the I Corps headquarters. Col Twyman R. Hill, 
Comments on draft, dtd 29Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File) and 1st 
MPComdC,Jan68. 



lage the allies sustained losses of nine dead and several 
wounded. Among the casualties were two Marines 
killed, including Lieutenant Manning, and six wound- 
ed from the 1st MP Battalion. -^ 

The rockets and mortar bombardment of Da Nang 
also took a toll of Marine lives and inflicted greater 
material damage upon the Da Nang base and especial- 
ly upon the airfield and aircraft. In scattered and inter- 
mittent attacks beginning before 0200 and lasting 
about one-half hour, enemy gunners fired both mortars 
and rockets that landed near positions of Marine 
artillery, antiair missiles, and the Force Logistic Com- 
mand. Battery A, 1st Light Antiaircraft (LAAM) Mis- 
sile Battalion armed with HAWK (Homing All the 
Way Killer) surface-to-air missiles, in the mountainous 
Hai Van Pass sector north of Da Nang, reported about 
0140 coming under 82mm mortar fire. About 20 min- 
utes later the missile battery sighted enemy rocket fir- 
ing sites and two minutes later radioed that 12 rockets 
of undetermined size landed in and around its area. 
One of the rockets damaged one of the missile launch- 
ers and wounded three of the Marines. At about the 
same time, approximately 15 enemy 122mm rockets 
struck an artillery complex in the 1 1th Marines North- 
ern Sector Defense Command which included a 
detachment from the 1st Armored Amphibian Com- 
pany, the 155mm Gun and 8-inch Gun Batteries, as 
well as Batteries H, 3d Battalion and M, 4th Battalion, 
1 1th Marines. The artillerymen sustained two wound- 
ed and some equipment damage, but escaped relative- 
ly unscathed. Other enemy rocketeers took the Marine 
Force Logistic Command compound near Red Beach 
under fire. Approximately at 0200, about four of the 
122mm rockets fell in or near the compound, one land- 
ing near the 1st Air Cavalry air pad temporarily locat- 
ed there, damaging four of the helicopters, but result- 
ing in no Marine or Army casualties.-'^ 

After a lull of about an hour to an hour and a half, 
the enemy gunners renewed their assault on the airbase 
and also included the helicopter air facility at Marble 
Mountain. About 0330, perhaps to divert Marine 
attention from the ground assault on I Corps head- 
quarters and the city of Da Nang, enemy mortars 
opened up on Marble Mountain. Approximately 16 
rounds impacted in the MAG— 16 sector and another 
four in the Army aviation company area. About the 
same time, from their firing positions on the western 
fringes of the Da Nang TAOR, NVA rocketeers let go 
with a fusillade of 122mm rockets aimed at the main 
airbase. Some 36 of the large missiles landed on the 
main base, including the airfield. Fifteen minutes later. 



148 



THE DEFINING TEAR 




Photo from Abel Collection 
Firefighters from Marine Aircraft Group {MAG) 11 battle fla))ies engulfing two Grumman A— 6 
Intruder aircraft fivm Marine all-weather attack squadron VMA—242(AW). 



the enemy gunners followed with another 29 rockets, 
mostly aimed at the southern end of the airbase. Con- 
sidering the amount of ordnance that the enemy 
expended, casualties were relatively small. The rocket 
attacks resulted in the deaths of 3 Marines and the 
wounding of another 11. Material and equipment loss- 
es, however, were much more extensive. The rockets 
destroyed five aircraft, nine items of ground equip- 
ment, two vehicles, and one warehouse outright. Four- 
teen aircraft, six pieces of ground support equipment, 
five buildings, and another two vehicles sustained 
damage of one sort or another." Lieutenant Colonel 
William K. Rockey, the commander of the 3d Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines, later wrote: "The rocket trails of 
approximately 10 to 20 missiles as they rose into the 



* Colonel Robert W. Lewis, who as a lieutenant colonel command- 
ed VMCJ-1 at Da Nang at the time, remembered that the "rocket 
damage at Da Nang consisted almost entirely of aircraft damage. The 
rockets were accurate and landed on the MAG-11 flight line." Col 
Robert W. Lewis, Comments on draft, n.d. [Dec94] (Vietnam Com- 
ment File), hereafter Lewis Comments. 



air to arc over our positions to strike the Da Nang Air- 
base was vividly clear to all." He obser\'ed that the 
"rocket launching position was located directly south" 
oi his command group, "an estimated distance of more 
than 3,000 meters."^' 

The Marine response to the bombardments was 
rapid. Immediately the 11th Marines artiller\- units 
"initiated counter-rocket fires" at suspected avenues of 
approach. As various outposts reported their sightings 
to the Division FSCC, the artillen,'men then shifted 
these fires to actual sites. On the ground, at least one 
Marine unit prevented a rocket attack. A patrol from 
Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, operating 
below the battalion's command post on Hill 10, saw 
about 10 North Vietnamese soldiers just south of the 
Tuy Loan River preparing positions. The Marines 
called in artillery and mortar missions. Although the 
enemy troops fled, the Marines found five unexpended 
122mm rockets on the site. Later that night, the 1st 
Battalion, ^th Marines reported 15 secondar)^ explo- 
sions from Marine counter-mortar artiller\' fire. In the 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



149 



morning, the infantrymen discovered blood trails and 
three NVA bodies in the vicinity of the explosions.* 

Colonel Franklin L. Smith, of the III MAP opera- 
tions staff, remembered that information about the 
attacks that night came into the headquarters "in 
dribs and driblets." As he later explained, however, it 
soon became apparent "that a general offensive was 
underway." In the Da Nang area of operations, outside 
of attacks by fire on the Marine base and outlying 
positions, and the two ground assaults on Marine 
command and communications positions, the Com- 
munist infantry units largely concentrated on the 
South Vietnamese units. In the Hai Van Pass area in 
the north, North Vietnamese regulars attempted to 
cut Route 1 . To the south of the airbase, other enemy 
main force units attacked the District Town of Dien 
Ban and the provincial capital of Quang Nam, Hoi 
An, on Route 4. At 0230 on the 30th at Dien Ban, 
elements of the R—20th and V—25th struck the sub- 
sector headquarters defended by the 15 th Popular 
Forces Platoon and the 708 Regional Forces Compa- 
ny. Entering the town from the southwest, the VC 
fired about 70 rocket propelled grenades at the local 
forces, but never penetrated the defender's perimeter. 
About two-and-a-half hours later, the enemy units 
"ceased fire and withdrew." The Vietnamese militia 
suffered 1 PF killed and 10 wounded. According to 
the U.S. Advisory Group at Da Nang, the PFs and 
RFs accounted for eight dead VC and captured one 
wounded enemy soldier. In the town itself, 10 inno- 
cent people, caught in the crossfire, sustained wounds, 
but no civilians died as a result of the battle. -» 

About 5,000 meters to the east, in Hoi An, how- 
ever, Communist forces gained somewhat the upper 
hand. Beginning their attack about 0300, about one- 
half hour after Dien Ban had been hit, two companies 
of the W-23th Battalion used the noise of firecrackers 
set oiT and general firing by Tet celebrants to cover 
their approach. One of the companies captured a Ger- 
man missionary hospital in the city and the other hit 



*Igor Bobrowsky, a former Combined Action Marine in CAP 
Delta 2, located near the Thanh Quit River bridge on Route 1 south 
of Da Nang, remembered that an enemy team fired from a "spot prob- 
ably within a click of our positions .... We took them under fire . . . 
and cheered when one time, after just getting off/possibly two rockets, 
they were lit up by a chopper that had apparently been hovering in the 
dark waiting for them. A number of other choppers/airplanes/ then 
immediately blasted and raked over the whole area. We added as much 
machine gun and automatic fire into the mix as we could pump out." 
Igor Bobrowsky, Comments on draft, dtd 26Nov94 (Vietnam Com- 
ment File), hereafter Bobrowsky Comments. 



the rear base of the 51st ARVN Regiment, the Chi 
Long Camp, garrisoned by the ARVN 102d Engineer 
Battalion. Surprised by the initial assault, the engi- 
neers fell back, giving up half the camp to the Com- 
munist attackers. Bringing up two artillery platoons, 
the South Vietnamese gunners lowered their pieces 
and fired pointblank at the VC. By daybreak, the 
engineers held their own and the situation in Hoi An 
was at a stalemate.-'' 

The Korean Marine Brigade deployed six compa- 
nies around the city and the South Vietnamese 51st 
Regiment prepared a reaction force. In addition, the 
1st Marine Division alerted one company to participate 
in the relief of Hoi An, if needed. According to Com- 
munist documents, captured later, the two VC assault 
companies were to pull out at first light, but became 
bogged down in the city. The struggle for Hoi An 
would continue into the following day. 

Still by daybreak on 30 January, the intentions of 
the Communists were not entirely clear. While the 
enemy attacks were widespread in the Da Nang area 
of operations, the intensity of enemy operations in 
other areas of Vietnam varied. For the most part, the 
Communist offensive appeared to be limited to its 
Military Region 3. Even here, the assaults were largely 
confined to the Da Nang area in I Corps and to five 
provincial capitals in II Corps. In II Corps, the enemy 
struck the cities of Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Ban Me 
Thuot, Kontum, and Pleiku. According to some 
sources, the Communist high command had sched- 
uled a full nation-wide assault on the night of 29—30 
January, but postponed it for one day. Whether Mili- 
tary Region 3 never received the word, or failed to noti- 
fy some of its subordinate units is still open to conjec- 
ture. Indeed, the Communist leaders may even have 
had other ulterior motives. At MACV headquarters, at 
0700 on 30 January, Brigadier General Philip B. 
Davidson, the J-2 or MACV intelligence officer, 
briefed General Westmoreland and predicted "this is 
going to happen in the rest of the country' tonight or 
tomorrow morning." He was right. ^" 

The Fighting Continues 

Outside of the Da Nang and Hoi An sectors, most 
of I Corps remained relatively quiet during the night 
and early morning hours of 29—30 January. At 0600, 
however, about nine kilometers north of Tam Ky in 
Quang Tin Province, about 100 people gathered for an 
antiwar demonstration. A Popular Forces platoon 
attempted to disperse the crowd. According ro .m ini- 



150 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




TET OFFENSIVE AT 

DA NANG 

30 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 1968 

' 5 10 
KILOMETERS I 1 ' 




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USMC OHOAVAMGo 

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MVA GO NOl ISLANQ "i^L ""TI"' 



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tial advisory report, "an unknown number of grenades 
were thrown by unidentified persons, killing 20 
demonstrators." The report failed to state whether the 
unidentified grenade throwers were PF troops or mem- 
bers of the crowd. The South Vietnamese militia 
detained 30 people from the group, 15 men and 15 
women, all of whom under interrogation admitted to 
being Viet Cong cadre. About three and a half hours 
later in the same vicinity, about 200-300 VC Main 
Force troops attacked a village in the sector Elements 
from the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalr}' then engaged the 
enemy force which broke and fled. Joined by Compa- 
ny C, 7th Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment from the 
Americal Division, the U.S. Army troops eventually 
killed 36 of the enemy, detained another 18, and recov- 
ered 11 weapons.'^' 

At Da Nang, on the 30th, the fighting did not sub- 
side with the coming of daylight. Elements of the VC 
R—20th and local force units which participated in the 
attack on Hoa Vang and I Corps headquarters attempt- 
ed to escape the dragnet of Marine and ARVN forces. 
While the 1st MP Battalion supported by the 1st Tank 
Battalion established blocking positions north of the 
Cau Do River, the ARVN 3d Battalion, 51st Regi- 
ment swept the sector south of the river Caught east of 
the Cam La Bridge and Route 1, on a small island 
formed by the convergence of the Cau Do, a small trib- 



utary of the river, and the Vien Dien River, the VC 
turned to fight. A Combined Action platoon at 0830 
saw a number of VC attempting to swim across the 
Cau Do to the island.52 

By this time. General Robertson, the 1st Marine 
Division commander, had taken measures to bolster 
the ARVN south of the Cau Dau. He ordered the 3d 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion to form a blocking 
position on the southeastern bank of the Vien Dien 
River. First Sergeant Jaunal of the tractor battalion's 
H&S Company remembered that he received a tele- 
phone call that morning "that a few miles from our 
area the infantry had some VC or NVA trapped on an 
island and our Amtracs and Marines were to act as a 
blocking force."'' 

Simultaneously, the division ordered the helilift of a 
company from the 3d Battalion, 5 th Marines to rein- 
force the ARVN and the Combined Action Marines. 
By 0925 Lieutenant Colonel Rockey, the battalion 
commander, had formed a "jump battalion command 
group" and had his Company I, under Captain Henry 
Kolakowski, Jr, reinforced by mortars, at the battalion 
landing zone where four Marine CH— 46 Sea Knight 
helicopters awaited them. Within a few minutes the 
helicopters were airborne and then landed in a flat 
paddy just south of the island and near the Combined 
Action unit which had taken three casualties. Marine 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



151 



rifleman John L. Gundersen in the 1st Platoon of Com- 
pany I remembered that as soon as he and his squad 
alighted they came under heavy automatic and small 
arms fire fi-om the island.* The Marines took what 
cover they could behind a dirt berm and returned the 
fire. Within a few minutes the enemy weapons were 
silent. The company then searched the immediate area 
at first without encountering any resistance, sweeping 
first to the west and then retracing their route. As they 
once more entered the paddy where they started, the 
Marines again came under heavy fire, including mor- 
tars, from the enemy-held island.'"* 

With the increasing intensity of fire from the island 
and reports that South Vietnamese forces had observed 
some 250 people dressed in black pajamas moving 
toward the west, the Marine command decided upon a 
combined operation with the ARVN to mount an 
assault on the enemy forces there." Company I was to 
cross over the tributary to the island using a nearby 
footbridge while the ARVN assaulted from the west 
and protected the Marine left flank. Marine air and 
supporting arms were to soften up the enemy positions 
before the attack. As the infantry waited and the 
artillery fires lifted, the first Marine McDonnell Dou- 
glas F4B Phantoms came in and made "a spotting 
run," then strafed the enemy positions, and dropped 
high explosives and napalm. Marine John Gundersen 
recalled that the 

. . . concussion from each bomb shaking my face and 
eyeballs. The explosions blurred my vision momentari- 
ly. Small pieces of shrapnel were falling on us with some 
larger pieces buzzing over our head. ... I couldn't imag- 
ine anyone escaping such a pounding. -'5 

After the air bombardment, sometime between 
noon and 1300, Company I rushed over the foot- 
bridge, some 50 meters away. Captain Kolakowski 
dropped off his 3d Platoon to guard the northern 
entrance of the bridge while the other two platoons 
continued the attack on the objective, the hamlet of 
Lo Giang 2 on the island. The Marine assault on the 



* Lieutenant Colonel Gene W. Bowers, the battalion operations 
officer, recalled the situation somewhat less dramatically, writing that 
the landing "was uneventful except for some long range sniping from 
the island." LtCol Gene W. Bowers, Comments on draft, dtd 30May95 
(Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Bowers Comments. 

** Lieutenant Colonel Bowers commented that the 250 people in 
black pajamas were "identified by close pisses by UH-IE gunships to 
be villagers, mostly women and children, who were fleeing the fighting 
in their village. They collected in a huddled group on the northern- 
most peninsula of the island at the rivers' convergence. They remained 
there unmolested throughout the action." Bowers Comments. 



hamlet soon bogged down as the troops followed a 
path that led to the village gate. An enemy sniper 
killed the point man on the lead platoon and then the 
Marines came under heavy fire. According to John 
Gundersen, his squad then took the point and went 
through the gate. They had orders to turn west until 
they reached a tree line and then hold fast. Gunder- 
sen remembered as they ran "seeing numerous one 
and two-man fighting holes on the edge of the tree- 
line." When they reached the tree line, only his 
fireteam was there: "We did a quick ammo check dis- 
covering we were very low on rounds having only two 
grenades and two magazines of ammo between us. 
Luckily, we met no resistance before being ordered 
back to the rest of the platoon to dig in."'^ 

By this time it was late afternoon and daylight had 
begun to fade. The first two platoons of Company I had 
established a perimeter in the southeast sector of the 
hamlet while the 3d Platoon remained at the northern 
end of the footbridge. Gundersen recalled that they 
had been resupplied and that they had dug their defen- 
sive holes along a small path that curved around and 
led to the river. The Marine rifleman wondered why 
they established their position there on the low ground 
and isolated from the rest of the hamlet. At dusk, how- 
ever, Captain Kolakowski ordered them to leave their 
vulnerable defenses and silently move up to the top of 
the slope and again dig in." 

Under cover of darkness the enemy struck. The 
Marines had called for C-130 "Spooky" flareships to 
light up the area, but one of the lumbering aircraft 
had run out of flares and departed before its relief 
appeared overhead. The enemy took advantage of 
this approximately 30-minute period of pitch black- 
ness to mass a force before the 3d Platoon guarding 
the bridge escape route. About the same time, the 
enemy infiltrated into the lines of the other two pla- 
toons in the hamlet. Marine John Gundersen recalled 
hearing someone inside the perimeter whistling. He 
was about to tell them to be quiet "when a wall of 
tracers ripped through my position from the north." 
This continued for a few minutes when he heard 
another set of whistles very much resembling "vari- 
ous bird calls." This time enemy fire came from the 
west and then from another direction with still 
another whistle. By this time, the relief flareship was 
overhead and dropped illumination canisters. In the 
eerie light given off by the flares, the Marines "could 
see the enemy massing in front of us" and called in 
artillery and mortar support. Gundersen later wrote: 
"To escape the artillery which was right on target, 



152 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



they rushed towards us. " He recalled that some 
broke through, but "became trapped between us and 
the 2d Platoon. "''s 

In the meantime, Lieutenant Colonel Rockey and 
his small command group had established the battal- 
ion command post just below the island on the south- 
ern bank of the tributary to coordinate the operation 
and its supporting fires. Initially the command group 
consisted of the battalion commander; his operations 
officer, Captain Gene W. Bowers; the assistant opera- 
tions officer. Captain Lee C. Gound; and "artillery and 
mortar F.O.'s, helicopter support team, radio operators, 
and a few strap hangers who came along for the ride." 
The first disappointment was the failure of the ARVN 
forces to support the Marine attack. Although, as Cap- 
tain Bowers recalled, he heard some outgoing firing 
from our left flank, but "never saw any ARVNs move 
fonvard in the paddy." Bowers sent a senior liaison staff 
NCO "to fmd their headquarters to make contact . . . 
but he came back, saying the ARVNs were in the 
defensive mode, no one spoke English, and they 
ignored him." Lieutenant Colonel Rockey during the 
interim ordered a section of 106mm Recoilless Rifles, 
mounted on small flatbed four-wheeled drive vehicles, 
called Mechanical Mules, to reinforce the temporary 
command group from the 3d Battalion's combat base, 
some 9,000 meters to the south. The Mule-mounted 
106s, however, did not arrive until after dark.^-' 

For the command group, the first crisis occurred 
when the enemy struck the 3d Platoon at the foot- 
bridge, causing several casualties. Among the dead 
was the platoon leader. Captain Bowers remembered 
talking to a wounded lance corporal who called the 
situation desperate and "pled for immediate reinforce- 
ments . . . ." With the permission of Lieutenant 
Colonel Rockey, Bowers hastily formed a provisional 
platoon of about 30 men and placed it under the com- 
mand of his assistant. Captain Gound. According to 
Bowers, he pressed all the available men in the CP into 
the platoon including mortarmen, radiomen, recoil- 
less rifle men, and even a chaplain's assistant. He told 
Gound to take his makeshift force and attack across 
the bridge and relieve the embattled 3d Platoon.'" 

According to Bowers, when Gound 's troops depart- 
ed, the only people left in the CP were Lieutenant 
Colonel Rockey and himself The battalion comman- 
der "carried the Division Tactical net radio and moni- 
tored the artillery nets. " Bowers carried the battalion 
tactical net radio, monitoring the forward air controller 
net as well as the company's tactical net. "When the 
provisional platoon arrived at the 3d Platoon's position, 



Captain Gound radioed Bowers and asked for 81mm 
support against enemy troops he could see to his front. 
Bowers ran to where the mortars were guarded by one 
mortarman who told the Marine captain that "he was 
a new replacement ammo humper, who had no idea 
how to aim and fire the mortar." Captain Bowers told 
the man to help him break out the ammunition and 
then for about half an hour, the two "provided over- 
head free gun, dead reckoning, zero charge fire support 
to Captain Gound's platoon," while the latter "adjust- 
ed the fire by saying ... 'a little right,' a little closer,' 
and so forth." This broke the enemy attempt to over- 
run the Marines at the bridge." 

With the support of artillery, air, and mortars, 
together with their individual weapons and claymore 
mines, the Marines of Company I broke the back of 
the enemy attack. According to Gundersen with the 
1st Platoon, "the sounds of the arty, the rockets, the 
mortars, the grenades combined with the eerie sway- 
ing of the illumination on their parachutes created a 
hellish vision. Never before, or since have I been in 
such an acute state of fear." The fight, however, had 
gone out of the VC who began to disperse into small 
groups and tried to make their escape off the island. 
Captain Bowers recalled that under the light of the 
flares, the Marines reported "what they described as 
'hundreds' ... of heads of swimmers attempting to 
escape across the river to the east." On the other bank 
of the river, however, the small task force from the 3d 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion blocked their way. The 
amtrac troops rounded up in the water about 105 
detainees fleeing the island. -i^ 

On the morning of the 31st, the Marines of Com- 
pany I, now reinforced by the ARVN and the AmTrac 
Marines, surveyed the results of the fighting and con- 
tinued to mop up the remnants of the enemy force. At 
dawn, near the positions of the 1st Platoon, John Gun- 
dersen remembered "bodies of the enemy soldiers were 
strewn about not more than 1 5 meters in front of our 
perimeter, swelling indepth in front of the machine 
gun to as much as six deep. I was awed by the sight of 
all those bodies." He observed that the VC never real- 
ized that the Marines had moved from the fighting 
holes in the lower path and they "spent the whole 
night and their lives attacking those holes." Captain 
Bowers related that another "60 or so dead enemy were 
counted in front of Gound's position." Company I and 
the small command group remained in the sector until 
about 1500 on the 31st and then returned to their 
original combat camp to the south. According to 
Marine sources, the heavy action on this small island 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



153 



resulted in 102 VC killed, 88 prisoners of war, 13 VC 
suspects, and 70 laborers. Apparently the enemy forces 
were a mixed group from several different units inter- 
spersed together. Allied intelligence officers identified 
members from the V-23th, R-20th, C-150th Battal- 
ions, and the Q—15th and Q—I6th Local Force Companies. 
The Marines failed to determine whether this mixed 
force had a specific mission or consisted of remnants 
from units that had participated in the earlier attack on 
the I Corps headquarters."' 

The rest of the enemy efforts in the Da Nang area 
and TAOR were about as haphazard and relatively 
ineffective as the fight on the unnamed island. In the 
northeast, near the Force Logistic Command sector, vil- 
lagers from Nam O just south of the strategic Nam O 
Bridge, told Popular Force troops, members of the 
Q-4 Combined Action platoon, that the VC planned 
to attack the CAP compound. At 0735, enemy gun- 
ners fired two rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at the 
compound tower and a VC infantry platoon opened up 
upon the Combined Action unit. The RPGs missed 
the apertures in the tower and fell to the ground. After 
a brief firefight, the VC troops withdrew taking any 
casualties with them. In a sweep of the area, the 
defenders found ammunition clips and bloodstains. 
Local villagers told the Marines that at least one VC 
had been killed in the brief skirmish. Two Marines sus- 
tained wounds."" 

The most serious ground attack against a Marine 
unit occurred in the western portion of the Da Nang 
TAOR just below the Tuy Loan and Cau Do Rivers 
near the eastern bank of the Yen River. About 0745, 
approximately two companies or a reinforced compa- 
ny from the 31st NVA Regiment ambushed a Marine 
platoon from Company G, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines. 
At this point. Company G was under the operational 
control of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which had 
the responsibility of protecting the western 
approaches to the Marine base. As the Marine pla- 
toon patrolled along the banks of the Yen, a heavy 
machine gun suddenly opened up. Firing from well- 
concealed and dug-in firing positions, the enemy 
machine gunners and infantry took a heavy toll of 
the Marines. With the enemy too close to call in 
artillery or fixed-wing air, the Marines radioed for 
reinforcements. A second platoon from Company G 
arrived at the site and attempted to maneuver to the 
NVA flank. The enemy then attacked forcing the 
Marine platoons to fall back to more defensive posi- 
tions. By 1100, Marine helicopters evacuated the 
most seriously wounded and brought in the rest of 



Company G into blocking positions on the western 
bank of the Yen.'- 

The Marines now counterattacked supported by 
artillery and Marine gunships and fixed-wing air. The 
North Vietnamese fought a delaying action as they 
began to withdraw. Later that afternoon, the 1st Marine 
Division helilifted a "Bald Eagle" reaction force from 
Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines east of the river 
in an attempt to close the circle around the NVA. Link- 
ing up, under artillery and air cover, the two Marine 
companies continued their advance until forced to halt 
because of darkness and then took up night defensive 
positions. Shortly after 1800, an air observer reported 
seeing 25-30 enemy troops in trenchlines, bunkers, and 
fighting holes. In the morning when searching the bat- 
tle area, the Marines would find "ample evidence of 
enemy casualties, but only two enemy bodies . . . ." 
Total Marine casualties of this incident on the 30th were 
10 Marines killed and 15 wounded. Most of the dead 
and wounded were from the platoon of Company G 
that fell victim to the enemy ambush. 

The attack on the western perimeter was probably 
the most serious thrust against Marine positions on the 
day and evening of 30 January. Throughout the day, 
however. Marine units throughout the TAOR reported 
incidents. A Company E, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines 
squad patrol in its regular area of operations just east of 
the confluence of the Thanh Quit and Vinh Dien River 
came under attack from an estimated squad of enemy. 
A detachment of four LVTs from the 3d AmTrac Bat- 
talion quickly arrived, but the enemy had already 
departed. The Marine squad sustained casualties of one 
man killed and one nonbattle casualty. Apparently one 
Marine at the death of his comrade became so dis- 
traught that he was unable to function."" 

In Da Nang City itself, about 1050 in the morning, 
approximately 500 people gathered at a Buddhist 
pagoda and attempted to hold a march. The National 
Police arrested 25 of the crowd and quickly dispersed 
the would-be demonstrators. This demonstration may 
have been planned to coincide with an attack on the 
city which never developed.-*^ 

South of the Hai Van Pass, in the northern portion 
of the Da Nang TAOR, in the 2d Battalion, ^th 
Marines sector, the North Vietnamese were able to 
close Route 1 temporarily, but failed to penetrate 
allied defenses. At 0915, a squad from Company G, 
2d Battalion, 7th Marines providing road security for 
a Marine engineer mine-sweeping team on Route 1 
just below the pass, encountered a small enemy sap- 
per detachment. Reinforced by another squad, the 



154 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Company G Marines killed three ot the enemy troops 
and captured two. The two North Vietnamese pris- 
oners identified themselves as members of the H—2 
Eiig'nieerjng Company, part of the 2d Sapper Battalion. 
According to the enemy soldiers, their mission was to 
mine and interdict allied traffic in the Hai Van Pass 
area. Their weapons included AK— 47s and B-40 
Rockets. Despite the Marine patrolling, NVA sap- 
pers, probably from the 2d Sapper Battalion, blew 
three bridges and one culvert over Route 1 in the pass 
area. An entry in the 1st Marine Division Journal for 
30 January read "Rt # 1 from Hai Van Pass to Phu 
Loc closed as a result of enemy action.""^ 

On the night of the 30th, elements of a battalion of 
the NVA 4tb Regiment attacked an ARVN outpost at 
the foot of the Hai Van Pass. The South Vietnamese 
quickly rushed the newly arrived 5 th ARVN Ranger 
Battalion into the area north of Da Nang City. Sup- 
ported by U.S. artillery and air, the South Vietnamese 
successfijily contained the Communist units in the 
Nam O and Lien Chien regions. This fighting would 
continue in a desultory fashion throughout the night. '"' 

South of Da Nang, in Hoi An, on the 30th, the 
South Koreans, reinforced by elements of the ARVN 
51st Regiment, tried to tighten the loop and began 
preparations to retake the city. At 0730, the South 
Koreans reported about 200 to 300 enemy troops still 
in Hoi An. An American advisor within the MACV 
compound reported at 1145 that the VC were digging 
in the engineer compound and that "numerous boats 
in river loaded with Charlie." After calling in heli- 
copter gunships, the Korean Marines, at 1320, reached 
the old MACV compound and linked up with U.S. 
advisors there. The VC continued to hold the hospital, 
however, and part of the engineer compound. 
Although the Koreans and the ARVN surrounded 
most of the city, the Communist troops still were able 
to keep their southern flank open. 5" 

The Korean Marines sent three companies to close 
the southern link and then moved forward into the 
attack. By dark the Koreans had captured the hospital 
and were in position to relieve the engineer compound. 
The Koreans kept one company at the MACV com- 
pound for security and prepared for a sweep to clear out 
the city in the morning. During the night, enemy 
resistance dwindled to sniper fire on the Marine posi- 
tions. Colonel Franklin Smith, from the III MAF per- 
spective, suggested later that a reluctance upon the 
part of the South Korean Marine Brigade commander 
to cause undue damage and to avoid civilian casualties 
lay behind the slowness and deliberateness of the Kore- 



an advance. According to U.S. advisors and to South 
Vietnamese sources, the fight for Hoi An resulted in 
allied casualties of 58 killed, 103 wounded in action, 
21 missing in action, and 14 weapons lost. The allies 
claimed they killed 343 of the enemy and detained 195 
prisoners. Of the prisoners, the South Vietnamese iden- 
tified 6 as military, 109 as workers, and the remaining 
80 as VC cadre. 

Throughout the Da Nang TAOR, the intensity of 
activity increased during the night. From 1800 to 
2400 on the 30th, the 1st Marine Division reported to 
III MAF over 30 incidents ranging from sightings of 
large enemy forces, to mortar attacks, and a few 
infantry assaults. At the same time, the 1st Division 
had sent out several reconnaissance elements which 
began to pay dividends. At 1835, Recon team "Ice 
Bound," positioned in the mountains about eight 
miles northwest of Da Nang observed an enemy rock- 
et unit prepare a firing position for their missiles. 
After calling in artillery which resulted in three sec- 
ondary explosions, the reconnaissance Marines report- 
ed seven enemy killed. The enemy launched no rock- 
ets from this site. 5 1 

Another reconnaissance patrol, Recon Team "Rum- 
mage," about 30 kilometers south of Da Nang in the 
Que Son Mountains below An Hoa, had even more 
spectacular results. About 1900, it spotted a column of 
about 40 NVA at the head of even a larger column 
moving east along a trail. The North Vietnamese sol- 
diers wore flak jackets and helmets and carried a 
machine gun, and a small rocket detachment with six 
122mm rockets. "Rummage" soon determined that 
the total number of North Vietnamese troops approxi- 
mated 500 or more men, moving in two columns. The 
lead column consisted of about 100 to 150 men, fol- 
lowed by the main body. The main body advanced in 
column maintaining about three to four feet space 
between each man. Instead of calling artillery fire 
immediately, the reconnaissance Marines arranged 
with Battery K, 4th Battalion, 11th Marines and a 
detachment of the 3d 155mm Gun Battery at An Hoa 
for an "artillery ambush. "'^ 

After counting 500 men pass their position. Rum- 
mage sprung the trap. Landing in large bursts, about 
50 to 75 artillery rounds fell on the lead column. 
Rummage reported about 50 NVA dead with anoth- 
er 100 "probable." Immediately after the artillery 
shelling, a C-47 Spooky arrived on station and 
worked over the same area with its Gatling guns. 
Rummage radioed back that Spooky caught about 50 
NVA crossing a stream and the recon Marines could 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



155 



observe "rounds hitting all around them {the NVA}." 
Spooky then called in Marine fixed-wing attack air- 
craft which dropped napalm with "outstanding cover- 
age of target." Darkness prevented any accurate bomb 
assessment, but the "Rummage" Marines could 
observe enemy movement when illumination was 
available. According to the team leader, "We never 
saw the end of the main body . . . {but} when we 
stopped the count, there were NVA still in column of 
4's as far as we could see with our M49 {rifle spotting 
scope]." 

Later intelligence and interrogation reports of pris- 
oners of war would indicate that the unit that "Rum- 
mage" had intercepted was probably a battalion of the 
2dNVA Division. Apparently the division was slow in 
moving into the Da Nang area and was not in posi- 
tion to support the local forces in the earlier phase of 
the enemy offensive. According to Marine intelli- 
gence sources. Rummage may well "have rendered a 
reinforced battalion combat ineffective, forcing the 
enemy to modify his plans at a critical time." In a 
message to III MAF, General Robertson observed: 
"Never have so few done so much to so many." 

By this time, the Communist Tet offensive was in 
full bloom, not only at Da Nang, but throughout 
Vietnam. In the early morning hours of 31 January, 
Communist forces assaulted provincial and district 
capitals extending from the Mekong Delta in the 
south to Quang Tri City in the north. In Thua Thien 
Province in I Corps, two North Vietnamese regi- 
ments held most of Hue City and the Marine base at 
Phu Bai came under mortar and rocket barrages. 
Along Route 1 between Phu Bai and Da Nang, VC 
and NVA main force units on the 31st made some 18 
attacks on bridges. Marine company positions in the 
Phu Loc area, and several of the Combined Action 
platoons. Elsewhere in I Corps, below Da Nang, 
around 0400 on 3 1 January, elements of the 70th VC 
Battalion and the 21st NVA Regiment struck Tam Ky, 
defended by the ARVN 6th Regiment and an 
artillery battalion. At daybreak, the South Viet- 
namese troops counterattacked. According to the 
South Vietnamese official history, the enemy retreat- 
ed in disorder leaving on the battlefield, "hundreds of 
bodies and 31 wounded who were captured." Anoth- 
er 38 of the enemy surrendered.^^ 

Much the same occurred at Quang Ngai City in 
the most southern of the I Corps provinces. At 0400 
on the 31st, supported by local guerrilla forces, the 
VC 401st Alain Force Regiment struck the city and air- 
field and initially achieved surprise, but failed to 



exploit its advantage. By that night, with the enemy 
command and control structure shattered, the fight 
was over.* The VC lost about 500 killed and some 
300 weapons. For its part, the 2d ARVN Division 
sustained casualties of 56 killed, 138 wounded, and 
one man missing. The ARVN also lost 43 weapons. '^ 

At the American base at Chu Lai, the Communists 
limited their attacks to mortar and rockets although 
rumors circulated that the NVA were about to launch 
a ground assault on the base. While the Americal 
Division maintained a 100 percent alert, enemy gun- 
ners, nevertheless, in the early morning hours success- 
fully launched their rockets and mortars. One 122mm 
rocket exploded a bomb dump and caused extensive 
damage. Colonel Dean Wilker, the MAG-12 com- 
mander, later recalled that the resulting blast of the 
bomb dump "caved in one ot my hangars and dam- 
aged the others."" The two Marine aircraft groups at 
Chu Lai, MAG-12 and MAG-13, sustained 3 fixed- 
wing aircraft destroyed and 23 damaged, 4 of them 
substantially. There was no further ground assault.56 

In the extensive Da Nang TAOR, the early morn- 
ing hours of 3 1 January were almost a repeat of the 
events of the 30th. Enemy gunners fired rockets at 
both the Da Nang Airbase and this time also includ- 
ed the Marble Mountain helicopter facility on Tiensha 
Peninsula. No rockets fell on the main airbase but 
Marble Mountain sustained some damage. The enemy 
rocket troops fired in two bursts, one at 0342, fol- 
lowed by a second barrage three hours later. About the 
same time as the rocket attacks on the Da Nang base 
and Marble Mountain, enemy mortars bombarded the 
command post of the 7th Marines on Hill 55 south of 
Da Nang and forward infantry positions. These 
included Hills 65 and 52 manned by companies of the 
3d Battalion, 7th Marines in the southwestern part of 
the TAOR and Hill 41 defended by Company D, 1st 
Battalion, 7th Marines in the central western sector. 
The mortar attacks resulted in only five wounded and 
none killed among the Marine defenders. Counter- 
mortar fire quickly silenced the enemy tubes. The 
Marine staff speculated that the enemy launched the 
mortar attacks largely as a cover for the rocket attacks 
against Marble Mountain. Even at Marble Mountain 
the damage was relatively contained. The Marines lost 
1 helicopter and sustained damage to 29 others. Two 



*A U.S. Army historian, George L. MacGarrigle, obser\'ed that the 
attack on Quang Ngai City foiled because the commander of the 401st 
"was unable to coordinate the action. " George L. MacGarrigle, Histori- 
an, CMH, Comments on draft, dtd 5Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



156 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Photo courtesy of Col Robert W. Lewis, USMC (Ret) 
Chu Lai airfield is seen in an aerial view after the rocket attack. Note arrous pointing out damage 
to aircraft hangars at the base. 



attached U.S. Army personnel were wounded.'" 

During the day and evening of the 31st, the VC 
and NVA infantry units pressed the offensive on the 
ground. In the northern sector of Da Nang, NVA or 
VC main force troops entered Nam O once again and 
killed the hamlet chief' Combined Action platoon 



'Mike McDonell, who was the Northern Sector Defense Com- 
mand "watch officer", recalled that he tried to warn the "CAPs . . . 
that there was a battalion of NVA in their ville; we could not raise 
them, the NVA went into assault and we had to call artillery on their 
position . . . ." He remembered that time as "when the world turned 
upside down." Mike McDonell, Comments on draft, dtd 22Nov94 
(Vietnam Comment File). 



Q^ there continued to hold out. At about 0740, a 
crowd of 400 Vietnamese civilians made up mostly 
of women and children and carrying NVA and VC 
flags approached the Combined Action compound. 
The jVIarines and Popular Force troops fired at armed 
members of the crowd who appeared to be directing 
the march. The crowd scattered only to gather on the 
fringes of the Da Nang base near the Force Logistic 
Compound near Red Beach. Again the crowd dis- 
persed and this time did not recongregate. In the 
meantime, the VC harassed with sniper fire both 
CAP Q— 4 and the nearby Nam O bridge security 
detachment from the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines. '>* 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



157 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190390 
A bandaged WC, wounded In the fighting for Nam 0, waits 
for evacuation. The prisoner talked freely to his captors while 
he received medical attention. 

The Da Nang Northern Sector Defense Command 
dispatched a provisional company to assist the Com- 
bined Action Marines as well as the security detach- 
ment. The provisional company linked up vcith two 
South Vietnamese Ranger companies that were operat- 
ing in the area to contain the battalion from the 4th 
NVA Regiment which had slipped through the Hai Van 
Pass the night before. With part of the force establish- 
ing blocking positions north of the hamlet, the rest of 
the provisional company and South Vietnamese 
Rangers moved through Nam O. By the afternoon of 
the 3 1st, the Marines and Rangers had completed their 
sweep. They collected some 200 people that they 
detained for flirther questioning. Some of the VC in 
the hamlet fled south, but encountered a platoon from 
Company E, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines coming up to 
reinforce the allied forces in the Nam O region. In the 
resulting engagement, the Marines of Company E 
killed about 13 VC. The enemy unit was from the 
Q—33th Local Force Company, which normally operated 
in the area. A prisoner captured in Nam O identified a 
North Vietnamese battalion, probably from the 4th 



NVA Regiment, operating below the Hai Van Pass with 
the "mission to form civilians for demonstrations. "^'' 

According to a South Vietnamese account, the 
ARVN Rangers killed 150 of the enemy and captured 
another 18 in the battle for Nam O and in other fight- 
ing below the pass through 3 1 January. ARVN intelli- 
gence officers speculated that the battalion from the 
4th NWA Regiment was supposed to have spearheaded 
the attack on the city of Da Nang the previous day, but 
arrived too late to influence the battle.^'" 

In other sectors of the Da Nang TAOR, the Com- 
munists also maintained the pressure on the allied 
forces. For the most part, the VC and NVA limited 
their attacks on the Marines to mortar bombardments 
and harassing small arms fire. Although agent reports 
and other intelligence indicated continued enemy 
assaults north of the Cau Do River against Hoa Vang 
and Da Nang City, most of these came to naught. The 
1st MP Battalion completed three sweeps of the airbase 
perimeter and the areas just southeast, southwest, and 
just north of the airbase without incident. The battal- 
ion's Company B, however, in an operation with a 
Combined Action platoon in two hamlets on the Tien- 
sha Peninsula or Da Nang East, surprised a VC force in 
two hamlets north of Marble Mountain. The Marines 
and Popular Force troops killed 22 of the enemy and 
took another 23 prisoner. ^^i 

There were two serious incidents in the 7th Marines 
sector. In the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines area of opera- 
tions, about 2,000 meters west of Hill 55 on the other 
side of a bend in the Yen River, a squad from Compa- 
ny L at 1 145 ran into what eventually turned out to be 
a fairly large-sized enemy unit. Reinforced by the 
remainder of Company L and two platoons from Com- 
pany M together with two tanks and a D/T, the 
Marines engaged the NVA. Company L, 3d Battalion, 
5th Marines set up blocking positions on the east bank 
of the Yen. Able to establish clear fields of fire in the 
rice paddy where the heaviest firefight occurred, the 
enemy prevented the 7th Marines elements from clos- 
ing with them. After dark, both sides withdrew, the 
Marines to night defensive positions and the NVA to 
the west. In the engagement, the Marines lost 5 killed 
and 12 wounded. They counted 34 enemy dead. Not- 
ing the new web gear and weapons with the North 
Vietnamese bodies left on the battlefield. Marine intel- 
ligence officers believed the North Vietnamese unit to 
be from the ilst NVA Regiment.''- 

About 5,000 meters to the northwest, later that 
night, a scjuad from Company C, 1st Battalion, "th 
Marines encountered an enemy force possibly from the 



158 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



same NVA regiment. The Marine squad was about to 
establish a night ambush site when an enemy force of 
about 100 fired upon them. Two other squad patrols 
from Company C in the vicinity quickly joined the 
first squad. Another platoon from the Marine compa- 
ny also reinforced the engaged troops about an hour 
later. Finally the enemy broke contact at 2000 and dis- 
appeared. The Marines took the worst in this uneven 
battle. Initially surprised, the first squad sustained 
heavy casualties. All told, the Marines lost 12 killed 
and 6 wounded. They later found three enemy bodies 
at the site. The dead enemy troops were wearing black 
pajamas under their green utilities. According to a 
Marine report, "it was evident that the enemy was pre- 
pared to masquerade as Vietnamese civilians in the 
process of infiltrating the TAOR and that he was 
attempting to infiltrate his forces in small units."<'3 

The greatest danger to the TAOR at this junc- 
ture, however, was from the south in that area 
defended by the Korean Marine Brigade and the 5 1st 
ARVN Regiment. Although the Koreans and 
ARVN in a combined operation finally cleared Hoi 
An, enemy units to the west, south, and north of that 
city continued to press the attack. At 0920, enemy 
forces attacked the district towns of Dien Ban, just 
above the Ky Lam River, and Duy Xuyen below the 
river. At Dien Bien, the 51st ARVN reinforced by 
Korean Marines contained the attack. At Duy 
Xuyen, however, the Communist troops overran the 
town, forcing the district chief to flee and take refuge 
with the Koreans. Americal Division artillery oper- 
ating in the Que Son sector took the Communist 
forces under fire, but did not shell Duy Xuyen town 
because of the civilian population there. The III 
MAF Command Center later that evening radioed 
MACV in Saigon: "Although the enemy has suffered 
heavy losses within his local and main force VC units 
during the past two days, he still possesses a formi- 
dable threat utilizing NVA troops poised on the 
periphery of the Da Nang TAOR."'« 

While the Communist forces continued to harass 
allied positions on the night of 31 January— 1 Febru- 
ary 1968, the intensity of combat did not match that 
of the previous two nights. Still enemy gunners just 
before 0100 launched 12 122mm rockets aimed at 
the Da Nang base and blew up two ammunition 
dumps, one for napalm and the other for flares. 
While making for a loud and colorful pyrotechnical 
display, the explosions caused no casualties and no 
damage to any of the aircraft. There were no other 
rocket attacks that night." 



Again during the day of 1 February, the number of 
incidents between allied and Communist forces fell 
from those of the two previous days. Enemy gunners, 
however, continued to be active and shot down a 
Marine CH— 46 attempting to insert a reconnaissance 
team into a landing zone in the hill mass in the west- 
ern sector of Da Nang below the Tuy Loan River. The 
helicopter burned upon crashing, but the crew and 
most of the patrol were able to get out. While Marine 
fixed-wing aircraft flew strike missions against the 
enemy gun emplacements, another helicopter evacuat- 
ed the survivors. Of the 13-man Recon team, dubbed 
"Dublin City," one was dead, nine were injured, and 
three escaped unscathed. According to Marine pilot 
reports, the enemy had approximately 250 men in the 
area equipped with automatic weapons, including at 
least one .50-caliber-type machine gun. After the 
fixed-wing aircraft and evacuation helicopter cleared 
the area, the 11th Marines saturated the area with 
artillery fire.'"' 

A Brief Lull and Renewed Fighting 

On 1 February, General Robertson began to refine 
his defensive dispositions at Da Nang so as to counter 
any further incursions on the part of the NVA regulars 
and the VC main force units pressing on the Marine 
TAOR. Robertson wanted to "canalize enemy move- 
ments in order to develop lucrative targets which could 
be exploited." Given also the enemy rocket threat, he 
still needed to maintain extensive patrols in the so- 
called Rocket Belt. The 1st Marine Division comman- 
der decided then to move Company M, 3d Battalion, 
7th Marines from its fairly remote position on Hill 52 
in the far western reaches of the Vu Gia River Valley 
above the An Hoa Basin to the more centrally located 
Hill 65. Because of the location of Hill 65, just above 
Route 4 about 4,000 meters west of the district town 
of Dai Loc, and below Charlie Ridge, where the VC 
had heavy machine gun emplacements which preclud- 
ed any helicopter lift, the Marine company had to 
make the move on foot. The company arrived at its dis- 
positions at 0100 the following morning. A contin- 
gent of South Vietnamese Nung mercenaries from the 
Special Forces CIDG Camp at Thuong Due took over 
the defense of Hill 52 from Company M.'^^ 

Still the Marine command believed the new posi- 
tions of Company M not only covered the approaches 
to Dai Loc, but provided the division with another 
reserve force. Further to the east Company G, 2d Bat- 
talion, 3d Marines, at the battalion's command post 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



159 



about 500 meters north of Dien Ban town, remained as 
the division mobile reserve mounted in LVTs and sup- 
ported by tanks. It also served to block "one of the 
principal avenues of approach to Da Nang from the 
south." The only other Marine reserves available to the 
division were the provisional companies of the North- 
ern and Southern Defense Commands. 

For the next few days, there was a relative lull in the 
Da Nang sector, at least as compared to the last two 
days of January. There were still ominous signs and 
actions that the enemy push on Da Nang was not over. 
Although most of the enemy activity was restricted to 
small-unit contacts, on the night of 2—3 February, 
enemy gunners again rocketed the Da Nang base. 
From firing positions southwest of the base, 28 
122mm missiles fell on the airfield, destroying one air- 
craft and damaging six others. Marine counter-rocket 
fire from the 11th Marines and 1st Tank Battalion 
resulted in five secondary explosions.''** 

While from 1—5 February, the enemy ground 
assaults on Marine positions appeared to diminish, 
Marine spotters in the tower on Hill 55 reported the 
constant movement of small groups of enemy troops 
in the western portion of the Korean Marine area of 
operations. Marine commanders and staff officers 
could only speculate that the enemy was probably 
infiltrating north in small groups to "predetermined 
rallying points" for a further assault either on the city 
or on the base. Other disturbing intelligence tended 
to confirm this analysis. On 2 February, the Marines 
received a report that the 2d NVA Divhion had moved 
its headquarters four miles north, to a position above 
Route 4, from its previous location on Go Noi Island. 
Two days later. Marine intelligence officers learned 
that the 21 st NVA Regiment was in the Go Noi area. 
Finally there were rumors that the other two regi- 
ments of the 2d Division, the 1st VC and the 3d NVA, 
had infiltrated even further north. In fact, elements of 
both regiments had reached jump-off points just 
south of the Cau Do River. As Lieutenant Colonel 
John F. J. Kelly, an intelligence officer on the III MAF 
staff, remembered, III MAF had expected the 2d NVA 
Division to have participated in the attack on the 30th 
and 31st, "and it was waited on with bated breath, we 
knew that it was coming."''' 

The Marines did not have a long wait. On the 
night of 5—6 February, the Communist forces began 
the second phase of its Da Nang offensive. At 2000 on 
the night of the 5th, a Marine platoon ambush from 
Company C, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines intercepted 
about 60 North Vietnamese troops about 4,000 



meters south of the Tuy Loan River in the western sec- 
tor of the area of operations moving northeast toward 
the river and the base with mortars and automatic 
weapons. Calling artillery upon the enemy troops, the 
Marines then swept through the area and recovered 
about 17 60mm mortar rounds. They later found four 
enemy dead. While the Marines successfully thwarted 
this attempt, between 0100 and 0500 on the morning 
of the 6th, enemy gunners mortared or rocketed all of 
the command posts, fire bases, and company combat 
bases in the 7th Marines sector. In the arrack, the 
enemy gunners fired 122mm rockets at Marine 
artillery positions at An Hoa, Flill 55, and Hill 10. 
Twenty rockets fell on Hill 10, manned by Battery G, 
3d Battalion, 1 1th Marines which resulted in 23 casu- 
alties, including two dead. The remaining rocket 
attacks were ineffective. Two of the mortar attacks hit 
the 1st Air Cavalry Division helipad near the Force 
Logistic Command area in the Red Beach sector. 
These destroyed two of the Army helicopters and 
damaged eight others. The mortar rounds killed one 
U.S. soldier and wounded two."" 

On the ground in the 7th Marines sector, North 
Vietnamese units hit several of the Combined Action 
platoons, especially in the 3d and 1st Battalion areas. 
One of the major attacks was against CAP B— 3 in the 
hamlet of Duong Lam (1) just below the Tuy Loan 
River. Shortly after 0100 on the 6th, enemy gunners 
opened up on the hamlet with intermittent mortar 
rounds and small-arms fire. About an hour later. 
North Vietnamese troops who had infiltrated Duong 
Lam rushed the CAP compound. While successfully 
beating back the enemy onslaught, the Combined 
Action leader called for help. At 0240, a squad from 
the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, supported by two 
tanks from the 1st Tank Battalion, moved to assist the 
embattled CAP unit. The reaction force itself came 
under automatic weapons fire and enemy rocket- pro- 
pelled grenades disabled the two tanks. About 0330, 
two more Marine tanks from the district town of Hieu 
Due arrived at the northern fringes of the hamlet. The 
armored force pushed through the hamlet and 
encountered only occasional small-arms fire. Joining 
up with the squad from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines 
and some newly arrived ARVN troops, the tanks then 
relieved the Combined Action garrison. The com- 
bined force then swept the general area where they 
found two enemy bodies and took three prisoners. 
According to the prisoner accounts, they were from 
the 3d Battalion. 31st N\A Regiment and confirmed 
that ". . . Da Nang itselt was the ultimate objective.""' 



160 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



The heaviest action occurred in the 3d BattaUon, 
5th Marines and 4th BattaUon, 51st ARVN sectors 
along Route 1. Corporal Igor Bobrowsky with CAP 
D— 2 located near the Thanh Quit Bridge along Route 
1 remembered being besieged in his compound by 
North Vietnamese regulars. As he recalled suddenly 
the enemy was there and forced his Marines and PFs 
to take refuge in the compound together with many 
local villagers: "We were running out of ammunition 
and everything else, so that was a big fear." According 
to Bobrowsky, the NVA suddenly disappeared as 
quickly as they had appeared. He later conjectured 
that "what saved us from being . . . taken out totally 
was the fact that they had bigger fish to fry, they were 
headed to Da Nang.""-* 

The bigger fish was the 4th Battalion, 51st ARVN 
Battalion base camp about 5,000 meters north on 
Route 1 above the Thanh Quit River. At about 0300, 
two North Vietnamese battalions struck the ARVN 
compound. Two LVTH— 6s from the Marine 1st 
Armored Amphibian Company attached to the 11th 
Marines responded to a call from the U.S. Army advi- 
sor attached to the ARVN unit. Firing 290 105mm 
shells, the tractor artillery reportedly killed about 80 of 
the enemy attackers caught in the open.^^ 

About 0900, Lieutenant Colonel William K. Rock- 
ey, the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines commander, ordered 
a small command group and two companies. Compa- 
ny M of his battalion and Company F, 2d Battalion, 3d 
Marines attached to his command, to the relief of the 
ARVN camp. Accompanied by tanks and LVTs, Com- 
pany F maneuvered to the north of the ARVN base. 
Company M advanced toward a hamlet to the south of 
the ARVN. Both Marine companies encountered 
heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades as 
they approached their objectives. The Marine compa- 
nies then pulled back and called in artillery and air. 
Lieutenant Colonel Rockey then directed Company G 
of the 3d Marines, also attached to him, to move up 
along the banks of the Bau Xau River toward a block- 
ing position southwest of the ARVN base "to seal up" 
any escape route in that direction. As Company G 



*Igor Bobrowsky commented on the "audacity (stupidity) of the 
NVA at the start of their push, when — as in our area, they moved in 
such numbers, openly and in the broad daylight that until they began 
to fire on us our only thought was that they must be an allied unit that 
strayed into our area." He added that although the NVA main group 
moved out they left "a blocking force behind to keep the CAP under 
fire . . . ." He believed these troops "were deliberately left in place to 
serve as stepping stones along the line of retreat — in the event of a 
withdrawal." Bobrowsky Comments. 



began its redeployment along the river route it ran into 
enemy forces attempting to retreat in that direction. 
Rockey then ordered a platoon trom his Company K to 
reinforce Company G. By the end of the day, the ele- 
ments of the four Marine companies had established 
their night positions. During the day's fighting, Rock- 
ey s battalion killed 107 of the enemy and took two 
prisoners. His Marines sustained casualties of 1 1 killed 
and 53 wounded."*"* 

The fighting continued during the night and into 
the next day. From their night positions. Company G 
observers saw large numbers of North Vietnamese 
approaching them from the north. The Marine compa- 
ny called in mortar and artillery fire. Battery F, 2d Bat- 
talion, 1 1th Marines alone shot off some 1,200 rounds. 
Even in the face of the artillery, the North Vietnamese 
continued their advance upon the Marine positions. 
Company G repulsed a number of probes throughout 
the night until the enemy broke contact at dawn. The 
3d Battalion, 5th Marines together with Companies F 
and G, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines then began methodi- 
cally to eliminate pockets of enemy resistance in the 
general area. In one contact about 1645, Company M, 
3d Battalion, 5th Marines met a force of 100 enemy 
troops. The Marines and VC in the ensuing firefight 
fought at a range as close as five meters from one anoth- 
er with the Marines achieving the upper hand. Accord- 
ing to the Marine after-action report. Lieutenant 
Colonel Rockey s battalion and the attached two com- 
panies from the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines accounted for 
more than 320 enemy dead in less than 36 hours. 

By this time, Major General Robertson, the 1st 
Marine Division commander, was worried about the 
ability to contain the enemy offensive south of Da 
Nang. The VC R-20 and V-23t/j Battalions had 
struck again at Hoi An, engaging both the Korean 
Marine Brigade and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 
ARVN 51st Regiment. North Vietnamese battalions 
from the 2d NVA Division had eluded the Korean 
and ARVN defenses in the southern sector and had 
penetrated the defensive perimeter of the 2d Battal- 
ion, 3d Marines and 3d Battalion, 5th Marines just 
below the main base. While the Marine battalions 
successfully kept these initial assaults on the night of 
5—6 February in check, General Robertson was not 



**Igor Bobrowsky with CAP D-2 remembered that Company M 
was "ambushed in the streets near the north end of Thanh Quit . . . 
. A good number of M Company that survived the ambush got down 
to us, along with some of their dead and a lot of wounded." 
Bobrowsky Comments. 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



161 




Photo is from the Abel Cc 

Marines from Company M, 3d Battalion, 3 th Marines move through tall grass in a hamlet on their 
way to relieve an embattled ARVN base camp near the Thanh Qi/it River. 



sure how much longer they could. The fighting dur- 
ing the preceding week had drawn down the 
strength of the ARVN and the two Marine battalions 
and the enemy division still had uncommitted units 
that it could throw into the fray. General Robertson 
shared these concerns with General Cushman, the III 
MAF commander." 

On 7 February, this request led to a strange con- 
frontation, if there was a confrontation, between Gen- 
eral Westmoreland and General Cushman. On the 
previous night as well as attacking at Da Nang, 
North Vietnamese troops overran the Special Forces 
Camp at Lang Vei, south of Khe Sanh. ' Believing that 
III MAF should have relieved the camp and fearing 
that the enemy was about to launch the much-her- 
alded attack on Khe Sanh itself, the MACV com- 
mander called for a special meeting on the morning 
of 7 February of the senior U.S. commanders in I 
Corps. At the meeting itself, he became even more 
upset as he learned about the situation at Da Nang. 
As he later confided, "the VC were getting closer and 
closer to Da Nang Airbase. There was an absence of 
initiative by the CG III MAF, 'in dealing forcefully 
with the situation."^" 



*For the overrunning of Lang Vei see chapter 14. 



According to General Westmoreland's account, he 
acted rather abruptly and made his displeasure known. 
Shocked at what he considered things left undone, he 
ordered "in exasperation" Major General Robertson of 
the 1st Marine Division and Major General Samuel 
Koster of the Americal Division from the room. The 
MACV commander told the two generals "to return 
only when they had worked out a viable plan for close- 
ly coordinated offensive action against the enemy 
threatening the airfield."^'' 

Apparently, however, although conscious of West- 
moreland's sense of urgency about the tactical situation 
at Da Nang, the Marine commanders were unaware of 
Westmoreland's unhappiness about the arrangements. 
According to both Generals Cushman and Robertson 
the meeting was not acrimonious. General Robertson 
remembered that he briefed the MACV commander 
on the enemy and stated that he needed more troops. 
Westmoreland then turned to Major General Koster 
and merely said: "'Sam, you let Robby have two, three, 
or even four battalions if he needs them.'" The MACV 
commander then dismissed Koster and Robertson 
from the meeting "to go out and work out the details." 
General Cushman later commented tiiat he did not 
normally order the movement of Army units until he 
and General Westmoreland "got together and agreed 



162 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



upon a plan. " His view was that the purpose of the 
meeting was to obtain Westmoreland's approval for the 
reinforcement of Da Nang by the Americal Division."'^'' 

Despite the mixed perceptions about the meeting, 
the various parties quickly worked out a plan of action. 
Colonel Smith of the III MAF staff, who sat in on the 
conference between Generals Koster and Robertson, 
remembered that afiier studying the situation map, the 
conferees "came to the conclusion that the best way of 
stopping this attack was to interpose an equally strong 
force between the 2d NVA Division and the Da Nang 
Vital Area." The idea was to stop the enemy division 
from entering the Vital Area rather "than pushing him 
from the south and in effect pushing him" into the sec- 
tor. The planners decided to send a two-battalion 
Army task force from the Americal Division into the 
northern sector of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines near 
Route 1 south of the Cau Do.^9 

The afternoon of 7 February, General Cushman 
issued the orders for the movement of the Army 
units to Da Nang. Major General Koster was to 
deploy one battalion immediately and to send the 
task force command group and remaining battalion 
the following day. Upon arrival at Da Nang, the 
Army units were to be under the operational control 
of the 1st Marine Division. The mission of the 
Americal task force was to "block enemy movement 
to the north, deny enemy access to the Da Nang 
Vital Area, and destroy enemy forces. "^o 

According to plan, late in the afternoon of 7 Feb- 
ruary, Marine helicopters brought the lead Army bat- 
talion, the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 196th Light 
Infantry Brigade, commanded by Army Lieutenant 
Colonel William J. Baxley, into a landing zone near 
the hamlet of Duong Son (1) just off the old railroad 



*General Westmoreland commented that he was "critical of Cush- 
man's lack of initiative in responding to an immediate tactical situa- 
tion," not of the command atrangements. He assumed that Cushman 
"appreciated that the Americal Division was under his tactical com- 
mand." Gen William C. Westmoreland, USA, Comments on draft, dtd 
180ct94 (Vietnam Comment File). 

Marine Brigadier General John R. Chaisson, the head of the 
MACV Combat Operations Center, who also attended the meeting, 
wrote to his wife about "recriminations" at the meeting, but these 
related to the Lang Vei situation. BGen John R. Chaisson, Itr to wife, 
dtd 8Feb68 (Chaisson Papers, Hoover Institute). Cushman related that 
he was "criticized because I didn't send the whole outfit from Khe Sanh 
down there [Lang Vei], but I decided . . . that it wasn't the thing to 
do." Cushman Intvw, Nov82, p. 31. General Earl E. Anderson, the III 
MAF Chief of Staff, also attended the meeting and agreed "that it was 
not acrimonious." Gen Earl E. Anderson, Comments on draft, dtd 
18Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). See also Chapter 14. 



tracks, about 2,000 meters south of the Cau Do. The 
Army troops quickly moved into night positions and 
encountered only harassing sniper fire or an occasion- 
al mortar round.*' 

The night of 7—8 was relatively uneventful 
throughout the Da Nang TAOR until about 0345. At 
that time, enemy mortar rounds fell into the CAP E-A 
compound in Lo Giang (1) hamlet, about 2,000 
meters northeast of Duong Son (1). While beginning 
with the mortar bombardment, the enemy soon esca- 
lated the fighting. By daylight, enemy ground forces 
surrounded the CAP hamlet. 

At that point, to ease the pressure on the CAPs, 
General Robertson about 0700 deployed the Army 
battalion to Lo Giang (5), about 1,000 meters north of 
Lo Giang (1), just below the Cau Do. The Army troops 
soon found themselves engaged with another enemy 
battalion. The 1st Marine Division commander then 
reinforced the Army unit with two Marine companies, 
Company G, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines and Company 
I, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. This fighting continued 
to rage until late afirernoon. 

In the meantime, CAP E-A continued to hold out 
against overwhelming odds. A small Combined Action 
headquarters detachment of 15 men from Hoa Vang 
also attempted to reinforce the embattled CAP, but 
never reached Lo Giang (1). Only 1 of the original 15 
men survived. By mid-afternoon CAP E— 4 was nearly 
out of ammunition. At 1550, under cover of helicopter 
gunships and fixed-wing aircraft, Marine helicopters 
successfully evacuated the Combined Action platoon 
out of Lo Giang (1). In Lo Giang (5), the action lasted 
for another hour and a half, when the NVATVC forces 
tried to break contact. In that fighting, the soldiers and 
Marines killed over 150 of the enemy. 

By that evening. Army Task Force Miracle, under 
Army Colonel Louis Gelling, the commander of the 
196th Light Infantry Brigade, had been established in 
the Da Nang area of operations. Gelling, the task force 
headquarters, and the 2d Battalion, 1st Infantry, under 
the command of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lyman 
H. Hammond, Jr., had arrived from Chu Lai that afirer- 
noon. Establishing his command post near Duong Son, 
Colonel Gelling assumed operational control of the 1st 
of the 6th near Lo Giang (5) and placed the 2d of the 
1st in blocking positions below Lo Giang (1). During 
the following day, while the 1st of the 6th mopped up 
in its area, the 2d Battalion, 1st Infantry attacked north. 
The latter battalion ran into a North Vietnamese bat- 
talion and engaged it in a nine-hour battle. Pulling 
back its assault elements, the Army unit saturated the 



THE TET OFFENSIVE AT DA NANG 



163 



area with artillery. They later found 46 enemy bodies 
and took a wounded man prisoner. Intelligence indicat- 
ed that the enemy unit in the southern hamlet was from 
the 3d Battalion, jhtNVA Regmmtt, and the units in Lo 
Giang (5) were from the 1st VC Regiment. In the mean- 
time, that day, on the eastern flank of the Army units, 
on the east bank of the Vinh Dinh River, the 2d Battal- 
ion, 3d Marines encountered two companies from the 
Ist VC Regiment and killed about 90 of the enemy. 

The enemy offensive in the Da Nang sector had 
spent itself During the next few days. Task Force Mir- 
acle conducted sweeps in its sector and encountered 
relatively little resistance. Both the 2d Battalion, 3d 
Marines to the east of the Army task force, and the 3d 
Battalion, 5th Marines to the south, also reported rela- 
tively little enemy activity in their sectors. Only the 
7th Marines to the west experienced an increase in inci- 
dents as North Vietnamese regulars and the VC main 
force troops moved through the western TAOR to 
return to their mountain strongholds in Base Area 114 
and through Charlie Ridge into "Happy Valley."*-* 

To the south, in the Korean sector, the ROK Marines 
with the assistance of the ARVN again drove Commu- 
nist forces out of the Hoi An environs. According to an 
enemy NCO from the 51st NVA Regi7)ient captured in 
the fighting, the mission of his unit was to "attack Hoi 
An, five times if necessary, and set up a liberation gov- 
ernment." Hoi An still remained in friendly hands. In 
the Que Son Valley on 9 February, the Americal Divi- 
sion engaged elements of the 21st NVA Regiment, the 
only regiment of the 2d NVA Division that had not been 
in the Da Nang sector. The 21st was also in retreat.^' 

According to Marine intelligence reports, on 9 Feb- 
ruary, the 2d NVA Division moved its headquarters 
back to the Go Noi from its more forward positions. 
The following day, the same sources indicated that 
both the 1st VC and the 5d NVA Regiments had also 
withdrawn to the Go Noi. On 11 February, General 
Cushman observed the 2d NVA Division "appeared to 
be withdrawing from contact southward" and ordered 
his subordinate commanders to continue to press the 
attack. He, nevertheless, released TF Miracle from the 
operational control of the 1st Marine Division and 
returned it to its parent command. The task force 
headquarters and its two battalions returned to Chu Lai 



the following day. The battle for Da Nang was largely 
over. Despite limited attacks later in the month, these 
were largely, as a report stated, "an attempt to maintain 
the facade of an offensive."'*' 

During the Da Nang Tet offensive, both sides expe- 
rienced heavy casualties, but the Communist forces 
proved to be no match lor the allied forces. According 
to III MAF figures, from 29 January through 14 Feb- 
ruary at Da Nang, Marines sustained 124 killed and 
more than 480 wounded. Army forces in the Da Nang 
area including the troops from Task Force Miracle suf- 
fered 18 dead and 59 wounded. South Vietnamese and 
Korean casualties probably equalled or slightly exceed- 
ed the American. U.S. estimates of enemy casualties 
ranged between 1,200 and 1,400 dead. Colonel Smith 
believed that the 1st VC Reginmit alone lost about 600 
men. The 2d NVA Division still remained intact, but 
obviously was not about to renew the offensive.^^ 

From almost every account, the Communist attack 
in the Da Nang TAOR was very inept. Despite the 
thinness of the Marine lines and the ability of both the 
NVA and VC to infiltrate, the enemy never capitalized 
on these advantages. According to a VC after-action 
report early in the oftensive, the writer complained 
that the "commander did not know . . . [the] situation 
accurately . . . and that orders were not strictly 
obeyed." In a 1st Marine Division analyses, the author 
commented that the 2d NVA Divisions approach was 
"along a single axis of advance so that his eventual tar- 
get was easily identifiable." Moreover, once the NVA 
units arrived south of Da Nang they "made no further 
attempts at maneuver even while being hunted by 
Marine and Army units, and when engaged, seldom 
maneuvered, except to withdraw." General Robertson, 
the 1st Division commander, observed that the delay 
of the 2d NVA Division into the picture may have been 
because the Communist forces "got their signals 
mixed . . . ." The VC were supposed to be inside "when 
the NVA division came marching down main street. 
You get your timing off and you've got problems." 
Another possible explanation was that the Da Nang 
attack may have been a secondary assault — to cause as 
much damage as possible and divert allied forces from 
the almost successful effort of the Communist forces to 
capture the city of Hue.^f^** 



*Igor Bobrowsky with CAP D-2 remembered the "retreating 
NVA/VC were certainly more pathetic, on the way back out to their 
lairs than they were coming in on us. At the same time though, they 
were . . . somehow scarier — because they were so clearly desperate in 
trying to get away, like small packs of cornered rats looking for holes 
to scurry through in a burning building." Bobrowsky Comments. 



** Brigadier General Paul G. Graham who was the Ist Marine 
Division Operations Officer (G-3) at the time disagreed with the last 
statement, writing "Hue had no military value to the NVA/VC. Da 
Nang was the prize — for success in that endeavor could have had a seri- 
ous effect on the Allied efforts in the III MAF area." BGen Paul G. 
Graham, Comments on dralt, dtd 20Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



CHAPTER 9 

The Struggle for Hue — The Battle Begins 

The Two Faces of Hne — The NVA Attack — Redeployment at Phii Bai and Marines Go to Hue 



The Two Faces of Hue 

As the former imperial capital, Hue was for most 
Vietnamese the cultural center of the country. With an 
equal disdain for both northerners and southerners, the 
religious and intellectual elite of the city held them- 
selves aloof from active participation in the war. Instead 
they advocated local autonomy and traditional Viet- 
namese social values that led to a distrust of the central 
Saigon government and its American allies as well as 
Communism. In both the 1963 Buddhist uprising and 
the 1966 "Struggle Movement," the monks from the 
Hue pagodas and students and professors at Hue Uni- 
versity provided the informal leadership against the 
successive Saigon regimes. 

Despite the city's reputation for dissidence, the 
Communists failed to take advantage of the Hue 
protest movements. Both the South Vietnamese Army 
and Viet Cong troops for the most part refrained from 
any show of force in the immediate vicinity or in the 
city itself With a sort of unspoken truce in effect, Hue 
afforded both sides a certain respite from the war.* 
With a wartime population of about 140,000 persons. 
Hue retained much of its prewar ambience. Divided 
by the Huong or Perfume River, the city emitted a 
sense of both its colonial and imperial pasts. It was, in 
effect, two cities. 

North of the river, the three-square-mile Citadel 
with Its ramparts and high towers gave the appearance 
of a medieval walled town. Built by the Emperor Gia 
Linh in the early nineteenth century, it contained the 
former imperial palace with its large gilt and dragon- 
decorated throne room. Within the Citadel walls lay 
formal gardens and parks, private residences, market 
places, pagodas, and moats filled with lotus flowers. 
Buddhist bells and gongs as well as the chant of prayers 
resounded through its streets. 

South of the river lay the modern city. Delineated by 
the Perfume River and the Phu Cam Canal into a rough 
triangle, southern Hue was about half the size of the 



*Peter Braescrup, then the Saigon Bureau Chief for the Washinglim 
Poit, observed that this informal truce only appHed to Hue. Peter 
Bracstrup, Comments on draft, n.d. [Jan9'51 (Vietnam Comment File). 



Citadel. The university, the stadium, governmient 
administrative buildings, the hospital, the provincial 
prison, and various radio stations were all in the new city. 
Attractive Vietnamese schoolgirls dressed in the tradi- 
tional Ao Dai bicycled or walked along stately Le Loi 
Boulevard, paralleling the riverfront. The Cercle-Sportif 
with its veranda overlooking the Perfume River evoked 
memories of the former French colonial administration. 
In January 1968 as the Tet season approached, how- 
ever, a certain uneasiness lay over the city. The cancel- 
lation of the Tet truce and the enemy attacks on Da 
Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the 
usual festive mood of the holiday season. On 30 Janu- 
ary, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, the com- 
manding general of the 1st ARVN Division, canceled 
all leaves and ordered his units on full alert. Most of the 
troops, however, already on leave, were unable to rejoin 
their units. Moreover, the only South Vietnamese forces 
in the city itself were the division staff, the division 
Headquarters Company, the Reconnaissance Company, 
a few support units, and Truong 's personal guard, the 
elite "Black Panther" Company. The division head- 
quarters was in the walled Mang Ca military com- 
pound, self-contained in the northeast corner of the 
Citadel. General Truong positioned the Black Panthers 
on the Tay Loc airfield in the Citadel, about a mile 
southwest of the division compound. In the southern 
city, the U.S. maintained a MACV compound in a for- 
mer hotel which served as a billet and headquarters for 
the U.S. advisory staff to the 1st ARVN Division.' 

The NVA Attack 

Although allied intelligence reported elements of 
two NVA regiments, the 4th and the 6th, in Thua 
Thien Province, there was little evidence of enemy 
activity in the Hue sector. Indeed, the 1st ARVN Divi- 
sion dismissed any conjecture that the enemy had 
either "the intent" or "capability" to launch a division- 
size attack against the city. U.S. order of battle records 
listed the C-)th NVA headquarters with its 804th Battal- 
ion in the jungle-canopied Base Area 114, about 20 to 
25 kilometers west of Hue. One battalion, the 806th, 
was supposed to be in the "Street Without Joy" area in 



164 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE BATTLE BEGINS 



165 



^.:.Qt 




166 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Phong Dien District, 35 kilometers northeast of Hue, 
successfully evading ARVN forces in the sector. Amer- 
ican intelligence officers believed the remaining battal- 
ion, the 802d, to be about 20 kilometers south of the 
city or with the regimental headquarters in Base Area 
114. According to the best allied information, the 4tb 
NVA Regiment was in the Phu Loc area near Route 1 
between Phu Bai and Da Nang.- 

Unknown to the allies, both enemy regiments were 
on the move towards Hue. The 6tb NVA had as its 
three primary objectives the Mang Ca headquarters 
compound, the Tay Loc airfield, and the imperial 
palace, all in the Citadel. South of the Perfiime River, 
the 4th NVA was to attack the modern city. Among its 
objective areas were the provincial capital building, the 
prison, and the MACV advisors compound. The two 
regiments had nearly 200 specific targets in addition to 
the primary sites, including the radio station, police 
stations, houses of government officials, the recruiting 
office, and even the national Imperial Museum. The 
target list contained detailed intelligence to the extent 
of naming suspected government sympathizers and 
their usual meeting places.^ 

On 30 January, some of the enemy shock troops and 
sappers entered the city disguised as simple peasants. 
With their uniforms and weapons hidden in baggage, 
boxes, and under their street clothes, the Viet Cong 
and NVA mingled with the Tet holiday crowds.* Many 
donned ARVN uniforms and then took up predesig- 
nated positions that night to await the attack signal.-" 

By this time the (>th NVA Regiment was only a few 
kilometers from the western edge of the city. About 
1900, the regiment had assembled on a slope desig- 
nated "Hill 138" for its evening meal. According to a 
North Vietnamese Army account, the troops ate a meal 
of "dumplings, Tet cakes, dried meat, and glutinous 
rice mixed with sugar." The commander and his offi- 
cers inspected the men's gear and many of the soldiers 



*CoIoncl John F. Barr, who as a lieutenant colonel, commanded the 
1st Field Artillery Group, had recently arrived at Phu Bai as part of Oper- 
ation Checkers. (See Chapter 6) Barr remembered that on the morning of 
the 30th, he visited Hue "to effect command coordination between the 
1st Field Artillery Group and the ARVN artillery commander in the 
Citadel. While into and through the city, I noted the unusual number of 
young men in civilian clothes; unusual in that most Vietnamese youths 
were either drafted by the ARVN or off in the hills with the Viet Cong. 
I mentioned this upon arrival at the ARVN artillery headquarters. I was 
assured by the artillery commander that it was customary for local farm- 
ers to come into Hue to celebrate the Tet holiday. Since he was a thor- 
oughly professional soldier with eight years combat experience in the 
province, 1 accepted his explanation — to my subsequent regret." Col John 
F. Barr, Comments on draft, dtd 24Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A188251 
Top, picture taken in February 1967, long before the battle, 
shows the elaborate entrance and part of the surrounding wall 
to the Imperial Palace grounds in the Citadel. This wall is 
separate from the walls of the Citadel itself. Bottom, the 
Golden Throne of the former Vietnamese Emperors is at the 
heart of the palace, which the North Vietnamese used as a 
headquarters during the fighting for the city. 

Photo courtesy ot Alex Wells, Jr. 




THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE BATTLE BEGINS 



167 



"changed into new khakis." At 2000, the regiment 
"resumed its march. "5 

At this point the 6th NVA divided into three 
columns, each with its particular objective in the 
Citadel. At 2200, about four kilometers southwest of 
Hue, the commander of the 1st ARVN Division 
Reconnaissance Company, First Lieutenant Nguyen 
Thi Tan, was on a river surveillance mission with 
about 30 men, when a Regional Force company to 
his east reported that it was under attack. Remaining 
under cover. Lieutenant Tan and his men observed 
the equivalent of two enemy battalions filter past 
their positions, headed toward Hue. Tan radioed this 
information back to the 1st Division. The two bat- 
talions were probably the 800th and 802d Battalions 
o{xhe6thNVA- 

Despite Tan's warning, the enemy troops continued 
toward Hue unmolested. In the enemy command post 
to the west of the city, the NVA commander waited 
for word that the attack had begun. At approximately 
0230 31 January, a forward observer reported, "I am 
awake, I am looking down at Hue . . . the lights of the 
city are still on, the sky is quiet, and nothing is hap- 
pening." Anxiously, the NVA officers looked at one 
another, but no one voiced their doubts. A tew min- 
utes later, the observer came back upon the radio and 
announced that the assault was under way.^ 

At 0233, a signal flare lit up the night sky above 



Hue. At the Western Gate of the Citadel, a four-man 
North Vietnamese sapper team, dressed in South Viet- 
namese Army uniforms, killed the guards and opened 
the gate. Upon their flashlight signals, lead elements of 
the 6th NVA entered the old city. In similar scenes 
throughout the Citadel, the North Vietnamese regu- 
lars poured into the old imperial capital.* 

The 800th and 802d Battalions pushed through the 
Western Gate and then drove north. On the Tay Loc 
airfield, the "Black Panther" Company, reinforced by 
the division's 1st Ordnance Company, stopped the 
800th Battalion. Although the enemy battle account 
stated that the South Vietnamese "offered no strong 
resistance," the NVA report acknowledged "the heavy 
enemy [ARVN] fire enveloped the entire airfield. By 
dawn, our troops were still unable to advance. "" 

While the fighting for the airfield continued to see- 
saw with first the ARVN having the upper hand and 
then the Communists, the 802d Battalion struck the 
1st Division headquarters at Mang Ca. Although the 
enemy battalion penetrated the division compound, 
an ad hoc 200-man defensive force consisting of staff 
officers, clerks, and other headquarters personnel man- 
aged to stave off the enemy assaults. General Truong 
called back most of his Black Panther Company from 
the airfield to bolster the headquarters defenses. With 
the reinforcements, the division headquarters 
remained secure. Nevertheless, by daylight, more than 



The southern gate to the Citadel, with its flagpole, is where the North Vietnamese raised the Viet 
Cong banner. 

Photo courtesy of Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) 



PW'-' 


~^MF 






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22^y 


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168 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



60 percent of the Citadel, including the imperial 
palace, was in the hands of the NVA. At 0800, North 
Vietnamese troops raised the red and blue Viet Cong 
banner with its gold star over the Citadel flag tower.'" 

Across the river in southern Hue, much the same 
situation existed. U.S. advisors to the 1st ARVN Divi- 
sion in the MACV compound, a complex of several 
two- to three-story buildings, including a former hotel, 
awoke in the early morning hours to the sound of 
bursting mortar and rocket rounds. The Americans 
grabbed any weapons that were at hand and manned 
their defenses. Like the 1st Division staff, the advisors 
successfully repulsed the initial enemy ground attack. 
While not mounting any flirther ground assaults, the 
NVA maintained a virtual siege of the compound with 
mortars, rockets, and automatic weapons fire." 

The 4th NVA Regiment with the 804th NVA Bat- 
talion, supported by local force companies and ele- 
ments of the Hue City Sapper Battalion, had launched 
its offensive against the modern city. Divided into sev- 
eral attack groups, the enemy sought out key civil and 
military facilities. Even according to the North Viet- 
namese official account, the enemy actions and prepa- 
rations in the new city lacked the cohesion and timing 
of those in the Citadel. The North Vietnamese author 
wrote: "The attacks on southern Hue were carried out 
by many forces which employed many very different 
forms of tactics." One unit lost its way in the darkness 
and did not arrive in the city until 0600. Despite con- 
fusion and some reverses, that morning, the NVA had 
control of most of southern Hue except for the prison, 
the MACV compound, and the Hue LCU (landing 
craft, utility) ramp on the waterfront to the northeast 
of the compound. '- 

In the Citadel, on 1 February, the embattled Gener- 
al Truong called in reinforcements. He ordered his 3d 
Regiment; the 3d Troop, 7th ARVN Cavalry; and the 
1st ARVN Airborne Task Force to relieve the pressure 
on his Mang Ca headquarters. Responding to the call 
at PK 17, the ARVN base located near a road marker 
on Route 1,17 kilometers north of Hue, the 3d Troop 
and the 7th Battalion of the Airborne task force rolled 
out of their base area in an armored convoy onto Route 
1 . A North Vietnamese blocking force stopped the 
ARVN relief force about 400 meters short of the 
Citadel wall. Unable to force their way through the 
enemy positions, the South Vietnamese paratroopers 
asked for assistance. The 2d ARVN Airborne Battalion 
reinforced the convoy and the South Vietnamese final- 
ly penetrated the lines and entered the Citadel in the 
early morning hours of the next day. The cost had been 



heavy: the ARVN suffered 131 casualties including 40 
dead, and lost 4 of the 12 armored personnel carriers in 
the convoy. According to the South Vietnamese, the 
enemy also paid a steep price in men and equipment. 
The ARVN claimed to have killed 250 of the NVA, 
captured 5 prisoners, and recovered 7 1 individual and 
25 crew-served weapons.'^ 

The 3d ARVN Regiment had an even more diffi- 
cult time. On the 3 1st, two of its battalions, the 2d and 
3d, advanced east from encampments southwest of the 
city along the northern bank of the Perfi.ime River, but 
North Vietnamese defensive fires forced them to fall 
back. Unable to enter the Citadel, the two battalions 
established their night positions outside the southeast 
wall of the old City. Enemy forces surrounded the 1st 
and 4th Battalions of the regiment, operating to the 
southeast, as they attempted to reinforce the units in 
Hue. Captain Phan Ngoc Luong, the commander of 
the 1st Battalion, retreated with his unit to the coastal 
Ba Long outpost, arriving there with only three clips 
per man for their World War II vintage Ml rifles.* At 
Ba Long, the battalion then embarked upon motorized 
junks and reached the Citadel the following day. The 
4th Battalion, however, remained unable to break its 
encirclement for several days. 

South of the city, on 3 1 January, Lieutenant Colonel 
Phan Huu Chi, the commander of the ARVN 7th 
Armored Cavalry Squadron attempted to break the 
enemy stranglehold. He led an armored column toward 
Hue, but like the other South Vietnamese units, found 
it impossible to break through. With the promise of 
U.S. Marine reinforcements, Chi's column, with three 
tanks in the lead, tried once more. This time they 
crossed the An Cuu Bridge into the new city. Coming 
upon the central police headquarters in southern Hue, 
the tanks attempted to relieve the police defenders. 
When an enemy B-40 rocket made a direct hit upon 
Lieutenant Colonel Chi's tank, killing him instantly, 
the South Vietnamese armor then pulled back.'^ 

Redeployment at Phii Bai and Marines Go to Hue 

The first U.S. Marines to bolster the South Viet- 
namese in the city were on their way. They were from 
the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, part of Task Force X- 



* Although the U.S. was reequipping the South Vietnamese Army 
units with the magazine-fed automatic 5.56mm M16, most South 
Vietnamese Army units in February 1968 were equipped with the 
semi-automatic, 8-shot, .30-caliber clip-fed Ml. See Jeffrey J. Clarke, 
Advice and Support: Ttie Pinal Years, 1965-1973, United States Army in 
Vietnam (Washington: CMH, 1988), p. 284. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE BATTLE BEGINS 



169 



Ray, the new command just established at the Marine 
base at Phu Bai, about eight miles south of Hue. '5 As 
part of Operation Checkers, the Task Force X-Ray 
commander. Brigadier General Foster "Frosty" C. 
LaHue had opened his command post on 1 3 January.* 
Two days later, as planned, he took over responsibili- 
ty for the Phu Bai base from the 3d Marine Division. 
LaHue, who had been at Da Nang until that time, 
serving as the 1st Marine Division assistant division 
commander, had barely enough time to become 
acquainted with his new TAOR, let alone the fast- 
developing Hue situation. This was true as well for 
most of his commanders and units at Phu Bai."' 

With several changes making the original Checkers 
plan unrecognizable by the eve of Tet, LaHue had under 
him two regimental headquarters and three battalions. 
These were the 5th Marines, under Colonel Robert D. 
Bohn, with its 1st and 2d Battalions, and the 1st 
Marines, under Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, with its 1st 
Battalion in the Phu Bai sector. While Colonel Bohn 
had arrived with Task Force X-Ray on the 13th, Colonel 
Hughes did not reach Phu Bai until 28 January. The 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines, under Lieutenant Colonel Mar- 
cus J. Gravel, began making its move from Quang Tri 
about the same time. His companies C and D had 
reached Phu Bai on the 26th while his Company B, and 
Headquarters Company came three days later. The bat- 
talion's remaining company, Company A, deployed on 
the 30th. Captain Gordon D. Batcheller, the Company 
A commander, remembered that while most of his 
troops were at Phu Bai on that date, two of his platoon 
commanders "had mistakenly stayed at Quang Tri" and 
the third was at a "Division Leadership School . . . ."'^*' 

On 30 January, the 1st Marines assumed from the 
5 th Marines responsibility for the Phu Bai area of oper- 
ations as far south as the Truoi River. At the same time. 
Colonel Hughes took formal operational control of his 
1st Battalion. Companies B, C, and D of the 1st Bat- 
talion, 1st Marines had already relieved the 2d Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines at various bridges along Route 1 and 
other key positions in this northern sector. When 
Company A arrived on the 30th, it became the Phu Bai 
reserve or "Bald Eagle Reaction Force." Captain 
Batcheller years later recalled that the company actual- 
ly was to "stand down" until 1 February when it was to 



assume security of the LCU Ramp in Hue itself, just 
north of the MACV compound. '«** 

In the meantime, the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines had 
moved into the Phu Loc sector and took over that area 
south of the Truoi River and as far east as the Cao Dai 
Peninsula. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines remained 
responsible for the rest of the Phu Loc region, extend- 
ing to the Hai Van Pass.i' 

In the Phu Loc area on 30 January, about 1730, a 
Marine reconnaissance patrol, codenamed "Pearl 
Chest," inserted about 3000 meters south of the town 
of Phu Loc, observed a North Vietnamese company 
moving north armed with three .50-caliber machine 
guns, AK— 47s, and two 122mm rockets. "Pearl Chest" 
set up an ambush, killing 15 of the enemy troops. The 
North Vietnamese fell back and surrounded the Recon 
Marines, who called for assistance. Both air and the 
artillery battery attached to the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines at Phu Loc responded to the request. The 
fixed-wing aircraft, however, could not "get a fix" on 
the enemy troops and were unable to assist.^" 

At that point, about 1930, Lieutenant Colonel 
Robert P. Whalen, the 1st Battalion commander, sent 
his Company B to relieve the Recon team. As the 
relieving company approached the ambush site, they 
heard Vietnamese voices, movement, and someone 
threw a grenade at them. In return, the Marines hurled 
grenades of their own and then moved in where they 
had heard the commotion. The enemy was no longer 
there, and the Marine company advanced cautiously. 
Lieutenant Colonel Whalen asked Colonel Bohn, the 
5th Marines commander, for reinforcements so as not 
to uncover his defenses at Phu Loc itself-' 

At the direction of Colonel Bohn, Lieutenant 
Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., the 2d Battalion, 5th 
Marines commander, who had just established his 
command post on the Cao Dai Peninsula, sent his 
Company F to reinforce the 1st Battalion. Captain 
Michael P. Downs, the Company F commander, later 
recalled that the North Vietnamese ambushed his 
company as it moved into the 1st Battalion sector. 
Approximately around 2300, on the 30th, about 
1 ,000 meters southeast of the Cao Dai Peninsula along 
Route 1, enemy troops opened up on the Marine com- 



*See Chapter 6 tor die establishment ot Task Force X-Ray at Phu Bai. 

** Batcheller related that the platoon leader at the division leader- 
ship school was there "as a student, although already nominated for a 
Silver Star! . . . Battalion could not refuse to fill a Division quota." Col 
Gordon D. Batcheller, Comments on draft, dtd I0Dec94 (Vietnam 
Comment Tile), hereafter Batcheller Comments. 



***It is not clear that the 1st Marines planned to assign a compa- 
ny permanently to the LCU Ramp. According to the Task Force X-Ray 
operating orders, the 1st Marines had the responsibility to ensure the 
security for road convoys enroute trom Phu Bai to the LCU Ramp. It 
is probable that Company A was to be assigned to road convoy securi- 
ty to the LCU Ramp. See TF X-Ray OpO, dtd 26Jan68, End, 1st Mar 
ComdC, Jan68. 



170 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




TF X-RAY 
31 JANUARY 1968 



pany from the railroad tracks which paralleled the 
road with both automatic and semi-automatic 
weapons, killing one Marine and wounding three. 
After the initial burst, the NVA broke contact and the 
Marine company secured a landing zone to evacuate 
the wounded. Company F then returned to the 2d 
Battalion perimeter."' 

By 2400 on the 30th, the engagement south of 
Phu Loc was about over. The Marine command did 
not want to commit any more troops and ordered 
the Recon Team "to break out and move to the 
north." Lieutenant Colonel Whalen then directed 
his Company B to return to Phu Loc, which it did 
without incident. The results of this activity 
including that of Company F were I Marine dead 
and 5 wounded and 16 enemy dead, 15 killed ini- 
tially by the Recon Team, and another by Compa- 
ny B. Colonel Bohn, the 5th Marines commander, 
believed that this action prevented a full fledged 
attack upon Phu Loc itself^^ 



On the night of 30-31 January, the same time the 
North Vietnamese struck Hue, the Marines had their 
hands hill throughout the Phu Bai area of operations. 
Enemy rockets and mortars struck the Phu Bai 
airstrip and Communist infantry- units hit Marine 
Combined Action and local PF and RF units in the 
region including the Truoi River and Phu Loc sec- 
tors. At the key Truoi River Bridge, about 0400 a 
North Vietnamese company attacked the South Viet- 
namese bridge security detachment and the nearby 
Combined Action Platoon H-8. Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham ordered Captain G. Ronald Christmas, 
the Company H commander to relieve the embattled 
CAP unit. The Marines caught the enemy force 
beginning to withdraw from the CAP enclave and 
took it under fire. Seeing an opportunity to trap the 
North Vietnamese, Cheatham reinforced Company 
H with his Command Group and Company F, which 
by this time had returned from its abortive venture 
to Phu Loc.-^ 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE BATTLE BEGINS 



171 



With his other companies in blocking positions, 
Cheatham hoped to catch the enemy against the Taxoi 
River. While inflicting casualties, the events in Hue were 
to interfere with his plans. At 1030, 31 January, Com- 
pany G departed for Phu Bai as the Task Force reserve. 
Later that afternoon, the battalion lost operational con- 
trol of Company F. Captain Downs years later remem- 
bered the company "disengaged . . . where we had them 
[the NVA] pinned up against a river, moved to the river 
and trucked into Phu Bai." With the departure of Com- 
pany F about 1630, the NVA successfully disengaged 
and Companies H and E took up night defensive posi- 
tions. According to the casualty box score, the Marines 
of Second Batalion 5th Marines in this engagement 
killed 18 enemy troops, took 1 prisoner, and recovered 
sundry equipment and weapons including 6 AK-47s, at 
a cost of 3 Marines killed and 13 wounded.-' 

While the fighting continued in the Truoi River 
and the Phu Loc sectors, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines 
had begun to move into Hue city. In the early morn- 
ing hours of 3 1 January after the rocket bombardment 
of the airfield and the initial attack on the Truoi River 
Bridge, Task Force X-Ray received reports of enemy 
strikes all along Route 1 between the Hai Van Pass 
and Hue. All told, the enemy hit some 18 targets from 
bridges, Combined Action units, and company defen- 
sive positions. With Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines as the Phu Bai reserve. Colonel Hughes 
directed Lieutenant Colonel Gravel to stage the com- 
pany for any contingency. At 0630, Colonel Hughes 
ordered the company to reinforce the Truoi River 
Bridge. All Captain Batcheller recalled several years 
later was that "we were rousted up about 0400 on the 
31st and launched south on trucks to rendezvous with 
and reinforce . . . {ARVN} forces about a map sheet 
and a half south of Phu Bai."-" 

According to Captain Batcheller, the truck con- 
voy carrying his company was escorted by two Army 
"Dusters," trucks armed with four .50-caliber 
machine guns, one at the head and the other at the 
rear of the column. When the convoy reached its 
destination, there were no ARVN troops to meet 
them.* On their way south on Route 1, the compa- 



ny had passed several Combined Action units, 
whose troops told them "'boo-coo' VC moving 
towards Hue, but none had been hit, and all bridges 
were up." Batcheller then received orders from Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Gravel to reverse his direction, either 
to reinforce an Army unit north of Hue or, on the 
other hand, to go to the assistance of a Combined 
Action unit just south of Phu Bai." In any event, 
whatever the case, this new mission was short-lived. 
About one-half hour later, about 0830, the compa- 
ny again received another set of orders, presumably 
from Task Force X-Ray, "to proceed to the Hue 
Ramp area ... to investigate reports that Hue City 
was under attack."-^*** 

Up to this point the fighting for Hue had been 
entirely a South Vietnamese affair. General LaHue, the 
Task Force X-Ray commander, actually had very little 
reliable intelligence on the situation. All he knew was 
that Truong's headquarters had been under attack, as 
was the MACV compound. Because of enemy mortar- 
ing of the LCU ramp in southern Hue, the allies had 
stopped all river traffic to the city. As LaHue later 
wrote: "Initial deployment of forces was made with 
limited information."-^ 

With this "limited information," Company A con- 
tinued north towards Hue. As the convoy proceeded 
along Route 1, it met up with four tanks from the 3d 
Tank Battalion. The tanks had been on their way 
from Phu Bai to the LCU ramp at Hue for embarka- 
tion and transfer north to the 3d Marine Division at 
Dong Ha. These tanks had happened upon some of 
the burnt-out hulks of the 7th ARVN Armored Cav- 
alry Squadron and had decided to return to Phu Bai 
when Company A "came up behind them." 
Batcheller remembered that he talked over the situa- 
tion with the major in charge "and he agreed to join 
us as we moved towards the MACV compound." 
According to the Company A commander, a short 
time later. Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. LaMon- 
tagne, the 3d Marine Division embarkation officer. 



* These trucks were not actually "Dusters," which refers to the 
Army M42 tracked vehicle mounting 40mm antiaircraft guns. Battery 
D, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery, U.S. Army at Phu Bai was equipped 
with both the trucks equipped with thequad .50-caliber machine guns 
(M55) and the M42s. The Marines referred to both vehicles as 
"Dusters." See 1st Mar AAR, Opn Hue City, p. 12 and Shelby L. Stan- 
ton, Vietnam Order of Buttle (Washington, D.C.: U.S. News Books, 
1981), pp. 104, 278, and 355. 



** Batcheller remembered that Gravel told him to reinforce the 
Army division, which would have had to have been the 1st Air Caval- 
ry Division located at Camp Evans, 12 miles north ot Hue. On the 
other hand, the 1st Marines Command Chronology states that at 0805 
"Bald Eagle (A/1/1) [was] diverted from Truoi Bridge to the location 
of CAP A-.^ ... to investigate reports of NVA activity." Batcheller 
Comments and 1st Mar ComdC, Jan68, p. III-A— 4. 

*** Batcheller later wrote that he had "never heard of Task Force 
X-Ray, or General LaHue." As hir as he knew, he "was working tor 
Mark Gravel and Major [Walter D.] Murphy," the battalion operations 
officer. Batcheller Comments. 



172 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



accompanied by a Navy chiet petty ofificer, sought 
him out and "made the vaHd obsen'ation that we 
were moving too slow." BatcheUer stated that he was 
"never clear" about the status ot LaMontagne, "who 
never tried to assume command," but oftered excel- 
lent advice. Actually LaMontagne was on the way to 
the LCU Ramp to supervise the loading ot 3d Marine 
Division (Rear) equipment and personnel who were 
still redeploying from Phu Bai to Dong Ha.-"' 

As the Marine company approached the southern 
suburbs ot the city, they began to come imder 
increased sniper fire. In one village, the troops dis- 
mounted and cleared the houses on either side of the 
main street betore proceeding. The convoy then 
crossed the An Cuu Bridge, which spanned the Phu 
Cam canal, into the city. Caught in a murderous 
crossfire from enemy automatic weapons and B — 40 
rockets, the Marines once more clambered oft the 
trucks and tanks. Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez, a 21- 
year old Texan and acting 3d Platoon commander, 
took cover with his troops in a nearby building. 
When enemy machine gun fire wounded one Marine 
in the legs, Gonzalez ran into the open road, slung 
the injured man over his shoulder, and despite being 
hit himself by fragments ot a B^O rocket, returned 
to the relative safety of the building. Responding to 
orders from Captain BatcheUer, Gonzalez rallied his 
men, who were on the point, and the column was 
again on the move. 5° 

This time the Marine convoy only advanced about 
200 meters before Communist snipers again forced 
them to stop. The enemy was on both sides of the road 
with a machine gun bunker on the west side ot the 
road. A B — 10 rocket killed the tank commander in the 
lead tank. At that point. Sergeant Gonzales, on the east 
side of the road with some men of his platoon, crawled 
to a dike directly across from the machine gun bunker. 
With his Marines laying down a base of fire, Gonzales 
jumped up and threw four grenades into the bunker, 
kilhng all the occupants. 



* Lieutenant Colonel Karl J. Fontenot, who at the time command- 
ed the 3d Tank Battalion, remembered that the 3d Battalion was in the 
midst of displacing from Phu Bai to Quang Tri and that the last four 
tanks, two gun and two flame tanks, in the battalion were slated to go 
by LCU from Hue to Dong Ha. According to Fontenot, LaMontagne 
was to supervise the loading of these tanks at the LCU. Fontenot 
recalled that he happened by chance to be at Phu Bai on the 31st, and 
was informed that the MACV compound was under attack and that the 
1st Battalion, 1st Marines was going to Hue. He claimed that he 
radioed these tanks and "briefed them on the enemy threat and advised 
them to load and prepare to fight." LtCol Karl J. Fontenot, Comments 
on draft, n.d. [Dec94] (Vietnam Comment File). 



As the Marine company cautiously made its way 
northward in the built-up area. Captain BatcheUer 
maintained "sporadic radio contact" with Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel at Phu Bai. For the most part, how- 
ever, he heard on his artillery and air radio nets noth- 
ing but Vietnamese. The convoy reached a "causeway 
or elevated highway in the middle of a large cultivat- 
ed area," and once again came under enemy sniper 
fire. BatcheUer went to the assistance of a fallen man 
and was himself wounded seriously in both legs. 
Gunnery Sergeant J. L. Canley, a giant of a man, six 
teet, four inches tall and weighing more than 240 
pounds, then took command of the company. 

As Company A engaged the enemy on the outskirts 
ot Hue, Colonel Hughes, the 1st Marines commander, 
requested permission from General LaHue to reintorce 
the embattled company. The only available reinforce- 
ments were the command group of the 1st Battalion, 
1st Marines and Company G, 2d Battalion, 5th 
Marines, which earlier that morning had become the 
Phu Bai reaction force in place of Company A. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Gravel, the 1st Battalion commander, 
remembered that there was no intelligence on the sit- 
uation in Hue and that his own battalion was "strung 
out" in the Phu Bai sector with elements still at Quang 
Tri. He had never met Captain Charles L. Meadows, 
the Company G commander, until "that first day." 
Gravel said the only planning he was able to accom- 
plish was to give the order: "Get on the trucks, men." 
For his part. Captain Meadows recalled that his task 
was to "get into the trucks with . . . [his] company, go 
up to the 1st ARVN Division headquarters and escort 
the CG [commanding general] back down to Phu 
Bai." The mission should "take no longer than two to 
three hours. "^''* 

Crossing the An Cuu Bridge, Lieutenant Colonel 
Gravel's relief column reached Company A in the early 
afternoon. With the linking up of the two forces. 
Gravel kept the tanks with him, but sent the trucks 
and the wounded, including Captain BatcheUer, back 
to Phu Bai. The vehicles returned without escort, just 
"truck drivers and the wounded. Some of the wound- 
ed could fire weapons." Lieutenant Colonel Gravel 
determined that this was the only teasible way to evac- 
uate the wounded because "we weren't going to get 



** Accordmg to the 1st Marines account, Colonel Hughes directed 
Gravel to reinforce Company A at 1030. The 1st Battalion, 1st Marines 
Journal shows that the command group departed Phu Bai at 1243 that 
afternoon. 1st Mar ComdC, Jan68, p. III-A-4; l/l Jnl, 31Jan68, End, 
1/1 ComdC, Jan68. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE BATTLE BEGINS 



173 













Departmenc of Defense (USM(J 
A Marine M48 tank moves in one direction on one of the broad streets of modern H/ie. while a group 
of South Vietnamese citizens flee the fighting in the other direction. Marine tanks from the 3d Tank 
Battalion supported the first Marine units to enter the city 



A371336 



any helicopters in there . . . . " According to Gravel, 
this "was a terrible longshot . . but it worked . . . ."^^ 

With the tanks in the lead, then Company A, the 
battalion headquarters group, and Company G follow- 
ing in trace. Gravel's makeshift command made its way 
toward the MACV compound, arriving there about 
1515. By this time, the enemy attackers had pulled 
back their forces from the immediate vicinity of the 
compound. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel met with Army 
Colonel George O. Adkisson, the U.S. senior advisor to 
the 1st ARVN Division. According to Marine accounts, 
Adkisson told the Marine battalion commander that 
the "Citadel was in fine shape," but that they needed 
assistance in evacuating American nationals.*' 

This contradicted an earlier telephone conversa- 
tion between the South Vietnamese I Corps and the 
III MAF command centers, both located at Da Nang. 
General Lam, the I Corps commander, had heard that 
the ARVN troops in Hue were surrounded and out of 
ammunition. The Task Force X-Ray commanding 
general. Brigadier General LaHue, remembered that 



reports came in that the 1st ARVN Division was "in 
trouble" and "we were ordered to go across the river 
to relieve some of the pressure." He relayed these 
orders to Lieutenant Colonel Gravel.-*^* 

Leaving Company A behind to secure the MACV 
compound, the Marine battalion commander took 
Company G, reinforced by the three tanks from the 3d 
Tank Battalion and a few South Vietnamese tanks 
from the ARVN 7th Armored Squadron, and 
attempted to cross the main bridge over the Perfume 
River. Gravel left the armor behind on the southern 
bank to provide direct fire support. As he remem- 
bered, the American M48s were too heav}' for the 



■ in .1 personal lecter to Captain Batthcller, Lieutenant Colonel 
Gravel expressed his anger about the order: "We proceeded to the 
MACV compound then were gifted with the most stupid idiotic mis- 
sion to cross the Perfume River Bridge and go to the aid ot the CG 1st 
ARVN Division." He stated that he told "Task Force X-Ray" about his 
concerns, but was ordered to "go anyway." LtCol Mark Gravel Itr to 
Capt Gordon D. Batchellcr, dtd 24Feb68, End to Batcheller Com- 
ments, hereafter Gravel Itr, Feb68. 



174 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



bridge and the South Vietnamese tankers in Hght 
M24 tanks "refused to go. "^5 

As the Marine infantr}- started across, an enemy 
macliine gun on the other end of the bridge opened up, 
kiUing and wounding several Marines. One Marine, 
Lance Corporal Lester A. TuUy, later awarded the Silver 
Star for his action, ran forward, threw a grenade, and 
silenced the gun. Two platoons successfially made their 
way to the other side. They turned left and immedi- 
ately came under automatic weapons and recoilless rifle 
fire from the Citadel wall. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel 
recollected that it was late in the afternoon and the sun 
was in their eyes: "We were no match for what was 
going on ... I decided to withdraw. "5'^ 

This was easier said then done. The enemy was well 
dug-in and "firing from virtually every building in 
Hue city" north of the river Lieutenant Colonel Grav- 
el radioed back to Colonel Adkisson "for some vehicle 
support ... to come and help us recover our wounded." 
According to Gravel, "the trucks didn't come and they 
didn't come . . . . " Becoming more and more agitated, 
the battalion commander took his radio man and an 
interpreter "to find out where in the hell the vehicles 
were." They came upon some U.S. naval personnel and 
a few of the American advisors in two Navy trucks and 
brought them back to the bridge. In the meantime, the 
Marines commandeered some abandoned Vietnamese 
civilian vehicles and used them as makeshift; ambu- 
lances to carry out the wounded. Among the casualties 
on the bridge was Major Walter D. Murphy, the 1st 
Battalion S— 3 or operations officer, who later died of his 
wounds. Captain Meadows remembered that he lost 
nearly a third of his company, either wounded or killed, 
"going across that one bridge and then getting back 
across that bridge.""* 



* Lieutenant Colonel Gravel in his letter to Batcheller gave the 
number of Marines from Company G that were wounded as 44. Eric 
Hammel in his account gives the casualties for Company G as 5 dead 
and 44 wounded, which probably does not include Major Murphy. 
Colonel Meadows, years later, commented that "to my recollection 
LtCol Gravel did not join us on the other side of the bridge. I remem- 
ber calling him on the radio and giving him my sitreps and eventual- 
ly the urgent need for vehicles." Gravel Itr, Feb68; Eric Hammel, Fire 
in the Streets, The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968 (Chicago, 111: Contemporary 
Books, 1991), p. 90; Col Charles L. Meadows, Comments on draft, dtd 
13Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



By 2000, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines had 
established defensive positions near the MACV 
compound and a helicopter landing zone in a field 
just west of the Navy LCU Ramp in southern Hue. 
On that first day, the two Marine companies in Hue 
had sustained casualties of 10 Marines killed and 56 
wounded. During the night, the battalion called in 
a helicopter into the landing zone to take out the 
worst of the wounded. According to Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel, "it was darker than hell and foggy," 
and the pilot radioed "'Where are you? I can't see.'" 
The sergeant on the ground, talking the aircraft 
down, knocked on the nose of the CH— 46, and 
replied, "'Right out here, sir.'" Gravel marvelled 
that the sergeant "had a knack about working with 
helicopter pilots . . . He brought it [the helicopter] 
right on top of us."^''** 

The American command still had little realiza- 
tion of the situation in Hue. Brigadier General 
LaHue later commented: "Early intelligence did 
not reveal the quantity of enemy involved that we 
subsequently found were committed to Hue."*** 
General Westmoreland's headquarters had, if possi- 
ble, even less appreciation of the magnitude of the 
NVA attack on the city. Westmoreland cabled Gen- 
eral Earle G. Wheeler, the Chairman of the U.S. 
Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the "enemy has approxi- 
mately three companies in the Hue Citadel and 
Marines have sent a battalion into the area to clear 
them out. "'"-' 



**One of the co-authors expressed doubts about the accuracy of 
the above account: "Not very long ago, I stood on an LZ trying to 
communicate with a CH^6 pilot through the helicopter's own IC 
[internal communication} system. Impossible, and this helicopter was 
on the ground, at low power. A hovering helicopter is louder by at 
least a magnitude. I have been under them . . . when they are less than 
10 feet off the deck and I can tell you that I don't believe this story 
for a minute. Having said all this, I still feel its too good to pass up." 
Maj Leonard A. Blasibl, Comments on draft chapter, dtd 30Jun88 
(Vietnam Comment File). 

*** General Earl E. Anderson, then the III MAF Chief ot Staff at 
Da Nang as a brigadier general, recalled that he was in "constant con- 
tact by phone . . . [with] Ftosty LaHue . . ., neither of us sleeping 
more than an hour or two a night. " Gen Earl E. Anderson, Comments 
on draft, dtd 18Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



CHAPTER 10 

The Struggle for Hue — The Second Phase 

More Keinf or cements — The Beginning of the Advance 3—4 February — Block by Block 3—8 February 



More Reinforcements 

By the morning of 1 February, the actual situa- 
tion was becoming only too apparent to both the 
South Vietnamese and American troops in Hue. In 
Da Nang, General Lam, the I Corps Commander, 
and General Cushman, CG III MAF, agreed that the 
1st ARVN Division would assume responsibility for 
the Citadel while Task Force X-Ray would clear that 
part of the city south of the Perfume River. General 
LaHue, the TF X-Ray commander, ordered Lieu- 



tenant Colonel Gravel's "bobtailed" 1st Battalion, 
1st Marines in southern Hue to advance to the Thua 
Thien provincial headquarters building and prison, 
a distance of six blocks west of the MACV com- 
pound. Still unaware of the extent of the enemy 
forces in both the old and new cities, LaHue told a 
group of American reporters at Phu Bai: "Very def- 
initely, we control the south side of the city ... I 
don't think they [the Communist forces} have any 
resupply capability, and once they use up what they 
brought in, they're finished."' 



Marine infantry advance cautiously under support of the 90mm gun of a M48 tank in street fight- 
ing in Hue. Even with the tank support, the Marines found the enemy resistance difficult to overcome 
in the first days of the operation. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A 1 90400 




l"5 



176 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



At 0700, Gravel launched a two-company assault 
supported by tanks towards the jail and provincial 
building. As a M79 grenadier from Company G, 5th 
Marines recalled: "We didn't get a block away [from 
the MACV compound} before we started getting 
sniper fire. We got a tank . . . got a block, turned right 
and received 57mm recoilless which put out our tank." 
The attack was "stopped cold" and the battalion 
returned to the MACV compound. - 

By this time. General LaHue realized the enemy 
strength in Hue was much greater than he had origi- 
nally estimated. Shortly after noon, he called in Colonel 
Stanley S. Hughes of the 1st Marines and gave him tac- 
tical control of the forces in the southern city. In turn, 
Hughes promised Gravel reinforcements and provided 
him with the general mission to conduct "sweep and 
clear operations in assigned area of operation ... to 
destroy enemy forces, protect U.S. Nationals and 
restore that portion of the city to U.S. control. "^ 

North of the Perfume River, on the 1st, the 1st 
ARVN Division enjoyed some limited success. 
Although the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 3d ARVN 
Regiment remained outside of the Citadel walls 
unable to penetrate the NVA defenses, the 2d and 7th 
Airborne Battalions, supported by armored personnel 
carriers and the Black Panther Company, recaptured 
the Tay Loc airfield. About 1500, the 1st Battalion, 3d 
ARVN reached the 1st ARVN command post at the 
Mang Ca compound. Later that day, U.S. Marine heli- 
copters from HMM-165 brought part of the 4th Bat- 
talion, 2d ARVN Regiment from Dong Ha into the 
Citadel. One of the pilots. Captain Denis M. Duna- 
gan, remembered that the call for an emergency 
trooplift came in about 1400. Eight CH— 46 "Sea 
Knights" made the flight in marginal weather with a 
200—500 foot ceiling and one mile visibility, arriving 
in an improvised landing zone under enemy mortar 
fire. The deteriorating weather forced the squadron to 
cancel the remaining lilts with about one-half of the 
battalion in the Citadel. ' 

In the meantime. Marine helicopters had complet- 
ed a lift of Captain Michael P. Downs' Company F, 2d 
Battalion, 5th Marines into southern Hue. Captain 
Downs, whose company had relieved Company G as 
the Task Force X-Ray reserve the previous day, remem- 
bered that on the 1st he reported to Major Ernest T. 
Cook, the 1st Marines operations officer, who told him 
he was going into the city and be under the operational 
control of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. Although 
coming under machine gun fire from the Citadel walls 
across the river shortly after 1 500, the Marine CH— 46s 



carrying the company landed south of the LCU Ramp 
"with minimum difficulty." Upon arrival, Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel told Downs to relieve a MACV com- 
munications facility surrounded by a VC force. Downs 
remembered that nothing he had been told back in 
Phu Bai prepared him for the situation he encountered. 
The company "spent the better part of the afi;ernoon" 
trying to reach the isolated U.S. Army signal troops 
and "never made it. " According to personal records 
that he kept, Captain Downs stated his company sus- 
tained casualties of 3 dead and 13 wounded.' 

Company F then returned to the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines command post at the MACV compound. 
Lieutenant Colonel Gravel prepared to renew his 
effort to reach the jail and provincial headquarters. At 
2300, Lieutenant Colonel Gravel requested air sup- 
port "to suppress heavy resistance . . . ." The tactical 
air observer reported that the low ceiling precluded 
any aviation support. Gravel received orders to 
remain in his night positions.'^* 

At Da Nang, General Cushman continued to dis- 
cuss the situation with General Lam. The two com- 
manders decided against the employment of fixed- 
wing aircraft or artillery in Hue. As Cushman later 
related, "I wasn't about to open up on the old palace 
and all the historical buildings in there. I told Lam he 
was going to have to do it." While the South Viet- 
namese would remain responsible for the Citadel and 
the Marines tor the southern city, Cushman made plans 
to cut the enemy lines of communication to the west." 

With the concurrence of General Westmoreland, 
the III MAF commander made arrangements for 



*Former captain and now retired Brigadier General Downs remem- 
bered that he received orders after returning to the MACV compound 
to take his company and a couple of tanks to the jail. He stated that he 
"found the order no more reflective of what the situation was in the city 
at the time and questioned the sensibility of it." Lieutenant Colonel 
Gravel agreed with him and sent a message drafted by Downs to Task 
Force X-Ray suggesting that the order be rescinded. The order was 
rescinded. As far as the air support. General Downs probably correctly 
observed that the rules of engagement at the time probably would have 
prevented any use of air support in the city. BGen Michael P. Downs, 
Taped Comments on draft, dtd llDec92 (Vietnam Comment File), 
hereafter Downs Taped Comments, Dec92 and BGen Michael P. 
Downs, Comments on draft, dtd 19Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), 
hereafter Downs Comments, Dec94. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel 
described the order to go take the provincial jail slightly differently. He 
stated that when Company F arrived he was given "another stupid mis- 
sion. Go down and secure the Provincial prison. Well I didn't go, I 
finally convinced them that we didn't have the power and that the pris- 
oners had been released on 30 January." LtCol Gravel Itr to Capt Gor- 
don D. Batcheller, dtd 24Feb68, End to Col Gordon D. Batcheller, 
Comments on draft, dtd I0Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



177 



bringing the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division 
(Airmobile) into the Hue battle. In late January, the 
1st Air Cavalry with two of its brigades had relieved 
the 1st Marines at Camp Evans, about 12 miles 
north of Hue. Since 31 January, the division's 1st 
Brigade, reinforcing the 1st ARVN Regiment, was 
committed to the fight for Quang Tri City. On 1 
February, General Cushman then alerted the 1st Air 
Cavalry commander. Major General John J. Tolson, 
to be ready to deploy his 3d Brigade from Evans into 
a sector west of Hue. By 2215 that night, Tolson's 
command had asked III MAF to coordinate with I 
Corps and Task Force X-Ray its designated area of 
operations in the Hue sector.^ 

Tolson's plan called for the insertion of two battal- 
ions of the 3d Brigade northwest of Hue. The 2d Bat- 
talion, 12th Cavalry was to arrive in the landing zone 
first, followed by the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry and the 
3d Brigade headquarters. Attacking in a southeasterly 
direction, the two battalions would then attempt to 
close the enemy supply line into Hue. An attached bat- 
talion from the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), 
the 2d Battalion, 501st Airborne, would cover the 
Camp Evans base area. The 1 st Brigade would contin- 
ue to operate in the Quang Tri sector." 

Under difficult circumstances, the "First Team" 
began its movement into the Hue area. Peter Braestrup 
of the Washington Post remembered that he dined with 
General Tolson a week later and that he "heard and saw 
how the bad weather was hampering . . . [the] newly 
moved division's logistics buildup and its efforts to 
move down on Hue."'" In mid-afternoon on the 2d, the 
2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry arrived in a landing zone 
about 10 miles northwest of Hue and then pushed 
towards the city." 

In southern Hue, on 2 February, the Marines made 
some minor headway and brought in further rein- 
forcements. The 1st Battalion finally relieved the 
MACV radio facility that morning and later, after a 
three-hour fire fight, reached the Hue University 
campus.* Although the NVA, during the night, had 
dropped the railroad bridge across the Perfume River 
west of the city, they left untouched the bridge across 
the Phu Cam Canal. About 1100, Company H, 2d 
Battalion, 5th Marines, commanded by Captain G. 




* Although the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines Joutnal makes reference 
to securing the University at 1630 on 2 February, Brigadier General 
Downs recalled that the battalion did not secure the University that 
day: "We got to Hue University. Had a tank hit and didn't get any fur- 
ther. We were then ordered back to our MACV positions." 1/1 Jnl File, 
dtd 2Feb6H, End 1/1 ComdC, Feb68; Downs Comments, Dec94. 



Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371126 
Marines of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines lower 
a wounded comrade from the rooftop of one of the buildings 
of the Hue University campus. 

Ronald Christmas, crossed the An Cuu Bridge over 
the canal in a "Rough Rider" armed convoy. •- 

As the convoy, accompanied by Army trucks 
equipped with quad .50-caliber machine guns and two 
Ontos, entered the city, enemy snipers opened up on 
the Marine reinforcements. Near the MACV com- 
pound, the Marines came under heavy enemy machine 
gun and rocket fire. The Army gunners with their 
"quad .50s" and the Marine Ontos, each with six 
106mm recoilless rifles, quickly responded. In the 
resulting confusion, the convoy exchanged fire with a 
Marine unit already in the city. As one Marine in the 
convoy remembered, "our guys happened to be out on 
the right side of the road and of course nobody knew 
that. First thing you know everybody began shooting 
at our own men . . . out of pure fright and frenzy."''** 



**General Downs recalled that his company was shot at by one of 
the Marine convoys that entered Hue. He believed, however, this 
occurred on 3 February rather than 2 Februar)'. Downs Comments, 
Dec94. 



178 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190816 
One of the collapsed bridges across the Perfume River connecting the new city with the Citadel. The 
NVA destroyed the V erf nine River bridges, but left standing for a time the bridge over the Phi/ Cam 
Canal leading into the new city from Phu Bai along Route 1 . 



Within a few minutes, the guns were silent. Nei- 
ther of the Marine units took any serious casualties and 
the Marine fire had suppressed the enemy weapons. 
One rocket, however, disabled a truck and the Marines 
successfully towed the vehicle to safety. Two journal- 
ists, Cathy Leroy and Francois Mazure, both French cit- 
izens, took asylum with the convoy after their release 
by North Vietnamese soldiers." 

About mid-day, Company H joined Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel where the 1st Battalion had established 



its toehold near the MACV compound. The NVA, 
however, continued to block any advance to the south. 
An enemy 75 mm recoilless rifle knocked out one of the 
supporting tanks. By the end of the day, the Marines 
had sustained 2 dead and 34 wounded and claimed to 
have killed nearly 140 of the enemy. As one Company 
G Marine remarked, the unit spent the day "hitting 
and seeing what was there." The battalion consolidat- 
ed its night defensive positions and waited to renew its 
attack on the following day. '5 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



179 




Department ot Defense (USMC) Photo A3^1355 
Machine gunner PFC DominickJ. Carango. Company H. 2d Battalion. 5th Marines, provides 
covering fire for advancing troops of his company with his M60 machine gun in the Hue street 
fighting. His assistant, with bandoliers of 7 .62mm ammunition rounds wrapped around him, 
crouches beside hini 



At Phu Bai, during the meantime, Colonel Hughes 
prepared to bring his headquarters group into Hue. On 
the afternoon of the 2d, Colonel Robert D. Bohn, the 
5th Marines commander, called in his 2d Battalion 
commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham, 
three of whose companies were already in Hue. 
According to Cheatham, a big man who had played 
professional football, Bohn told him, "saddle up what 
you need . . . {the 1st Marines} headquarters is going to 
Hue tomorrow. There's problems up there . . . We're 
going to put you in . . . ." The battalion commander 
remembered, "and so the next morning we went. We 
went blind. And that was it.""' 

On the 3d, both the command groups of the 1st 
Marines and the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines arrived in 
Hue in another "Rough Rider" armed convoy. The 
weather had taken another turn' for the worse: a cold 50 
degrees with constant precipitation in the form of fog, 
a fine mist, or rain. Although the Marine trucks came 
under enemy sniper and mortar fire, they safely reached 



the MACV Compound in the city. Colonel Hughes 
established his new command post there and held a 
hurried conference about 1330 with his two battalion 
commanders. While Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham 
then took control of his three companies already in the 
city, Gravel retained command of his Company A. The 
regimental commander gave the latter the task to keep 
open the main supply route while Cheatham was to 
continue the attack south from the University towards 
the provincial headquarters.'" 

At this point, Hughes, a pre- World War II enlisted 
Marine, who had been awarded the Navy Cross for 
action on Cape Gloucester in the Pacific campaign, 
turned to Cheatham. According to the 2d Battalion 
commander, Hughes told him: "I want you to move up 
to the Hue University building, and your right flank is 
the Perfume River and you're going to have an exposed 
left flank .... attack through the city and clean the 
NVA out." Cheatham expectantly waited for ftirther 
clarification of his orders, but the regimental comman- 



180 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



der gruffly stated, "if you're looking for any more, you 
aren't going to get it. Move out!" He then softly added: 
"You do it any way you want to and you get any heat 
from above, I'll take care of that."'8 

The Beginning of the Advance 3—4 February 

Establishing his command post at the University, 
Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham ordered a two-compa- 
ny, tank-supported attack against a complex of build- 
ings — the public health, the provincial treasury, and 
the post office — just across the street from his posi- 
tions. While Company G remained in reserve. Com- 
pany H was to capture the public health building and 
Company F, the post office and treasury facilities. Like 
Lieutenant Colonel Gravel before him, Cheatham dis- 
covered there was no quick solution. The thick walls 
of the treasury and postal buildings appeared to be 
impervious to the Marine bullets and LAAWs (Light 
antiarmor weapons).* According to Lieutenant 
Colonel Cheatham, the battalion tried to take the post 
office and treasury buildings about five or six different 
times: "That means mustering everybody's courage 
and energy up. . . . You'd assault and back you'd come, 
drag your wounded and then muster it up again and 
try it again. "19 

Although Company H reached the public health 
building by evening, it had to fall back to the Univer- 
sity. As Captain Christmas later explained, the Marines 
just did not have enough men. The frontage for a com- 
pany was about one block, and with two companies 
forward "that left an exposed left flank" subject to 
enemy automatic weapons fire. The battalion stayed in 
its night defensive positions and waited for daylight.-" 

In the meantime. Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines maneuvered to the southeast of the MACV 
Compound and captured an abandoned South Viet- 
namese police station against nominal resistance. The 
Marines found 30 carbines, 2 Browning automatic 
rifles, 10 Ml rifles, 20 60mm mortar rounds, and 40 
cases of small arms ammunition. At 1900, the battal- 
ion reported that the nearby International Control 
Commission (ICC) team was safe and that "no USMC 
personnel entered ICC building," thus not providing 



any grounds that U.S. troops violated the terms of the 
1954 Geneva accords.^i" 

The following morning, 4 February, Colonel Hugh- 
es discussed the situation with his two battalion com- 
manders. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel was not surprised 
to learn that the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines was "exact- 
ly where we'd left them" the day before. Believing 
"that there perhaps was some second-guessing down at 
headquarters on the inability of 1/1 to attack," Gravel 
now felt somewhat vindicated. In any event. Colonel 
Hughes decided to place the 1st Battalion on Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Cheatham's exposed flank and continue 
the push against the enemy defensive positions.-- 

As the 1st Battalion began to clear its objective 
area. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel had only one infantry 
company, Company A, now under First Lieutenant 
Ray L. Smith, who had relieved the wounded Captain 
Batcheller. Lieutenant Smith recalled that from the 
2d, when he arrived in Hue,*** until then, the battal- 
ion had basically held its own near the MACV Com- 
pound. Now on the morning of the 4th its first objec- 
tive was the Joan of Arc School and Church, only 
about 100 yards away. According to Smith, the build- 
ing "was square with an open compound in the mid- 
dle and we found by about 0700 that it was heavily 
occupied." Smith's Marines found themselves 
engaged in not only building-to-building, but room- 
to-room combat against a determined enemy. Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Gravel remembered that in the con- 
vent building "in these little cloisters that the ladies 
live in . . . we went wall-to-wall . . . ." One Marine 
would place a plastic C— 4 charge against the wall, 
stand back, and then a fire team would rush through 
the resulting gaping hole.23 

In the school building. Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez' 
3d Platoon secured one wing, but came under enemy 
rocket fire from across the courtyard. The Marine 
sergeant dashed to the window and fired about 10 
LAAWs to silence the enemy. A B— 40 rocket shat- 
tered the grilled pane and struck Gonzalez in the 
stomach, killing him instantly. Lieutenant Smith 
credited Gonzalez for taking out two enemy rocket 
positions before he was killed. Sergeant Gonzalez was 



*The M72 LAAW was a 66mm single-shot rocket-propelled anti- 
tank weapon with an effective range of 325 meters. The launcher tube 
was discarded after firing. It can penetrate 36 inches of concrete. 
Brigadier General Downs, who commanded Company F, 2d Battalion, 
5th Marines in Hue, commented that despite what the manuals say, 
there was "no way" the LAAW could penetrate 36 inches of concrete. 
Downs Comments. 



**The International Control Commission was created by the 
Geneva Agreement of 1954 to ensure the provisions of that treaty. It 
consisted of Polish, Indian, and Canadian members. Although by this 
time, the Commission was unable to enforce anything, it still retained 
facilities and personnel in both North and South Vietnam. 

*** Lieutenant Smith had arrived in Hue in the convoy with Com- 
pany H on 2 February. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



181 




Top is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A374463 and bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371436 
Top. a Marine from the 2d Battalion, J)th Marines from a classroom at Hue University returns fire 
with his Ml 6 at a NY A sniper in a building across the street. The 2d Battalion. 3 th Marines made 
its command post in the University. Below. Marine Sgt Reginald Hiscks. Company A, 1st Battal- 
ion, 1st Marines, wearing an unauthorized beret, fires his M3A1 submachine gun. Strapped to his 
back are four extra clips of .45 -caliber ammunition. 




182 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



later awarded the Medal ot Honor tor both his actions 
here and on 31 January.--* 

After securing the school, Smith's Company A 
maneuvered to the sanctuary which lay among a grove 
of trees and houses. Gravel wistflilly recalled that it 
was "a beautiful, beautiflil, church." As the troops 
advanced upon the building, the NVA threw down 
grenades, killing or wounding several Marines. 
According to the battalion commander, "They [the 
enemy soldiers] were up in the eaves, the wooden 
overhead; and they were in there and we couldn't get 
them out." Reluctantly, Gravel gave the order to fire 
upon the church. Marine mortars and 106mm recoil- 
less rifles pounded the building. In the ruins, the bat- 
talion found two European priests, one Belgian and 
one French, both unhurt, but according to Gravel, 
"absolutely livid," that the Marines had bombarded 
the building. Believing he had little choice in his deci- 
sion, Gravel thought the clerics in their dark clothing 
were fortunate to escape with their lives as the troops 
were "braced" to shoot at anyone in a black uniform.-' 

At 0700 on 4 February, Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham's companies renewed the attempt to take the 
public buildings across from the University. Captain 
Christmas' Company H blasted its way through walls 
and courtyards with 3. 5 -inch rockets, employing squad 
and fire team rushes, and captured the public health 
building. From there, the company was in position to 
support Company F's assault upon the treasury building. 

Captain Christmas recounted that his company 
employed the 106mm recoilless rifles to cover its 
movements. At first, the Marines attempted to use 
smoke grenades, but the NVA clearly saw through this 
tactic. As if on signal, "everything that was on our 
flank just opened up on that street." To counter the 
enemy ploy, the Marines would "pop smoke " to ascer- 
tain the enemy machine gun position or positions and 
then "here would come a mule-mounted" 106 and 
those Marines would wheel that thing out. Go through 
the full drill . . . crank off' a .50-caliber spotting round 
and then the 106mm round. The backblast of the 106 
raised a cloud of dirt and the recoilless rifle shell forced 
the enemy troops to keep their heads down. Taking 
advantage of the opportunity and the dust cover, the 
Marine infantry dashed across the street. Christmas 
then explained, "once we got across that street . . . that 
first lead element could direct its fire back toward that 
automatic weapon [or weapons}."-"^ 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190301 
Top. A Marine from Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines, armed with a M16 and with two hAAWs (light 
antiarmor weapons) strapped to his back, runs for cover. A 
Marine 1 06mm recoilless rifle on a trident can be seen in the 
gateway to the house in the background. Below, the ruined 
interior of the St. Joan of Arc Church appears after its cap- 
ture by the 1st Battalion. 1st Marines. LtCol Marcus J. 
Gravel, the battalion commander, reluctantly gave the order 
to fire upon the sanctuary, remarking that it was a "beauti- 
ful, beautiful church. " 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190474 





■&- 



'j,'f: L-fir.,- '"i'p J 



*The mechanical mule was a small flatbed four-wheeled drive 
vehicle which often was used to carry a 106mm recoilless rifle. 




THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



183 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371216 
A Marine 1 06mm recoilless rifle team set the weapon on its tripod in one of the Hue University class- 
rooms, to take out an enemy machine gun. According to one of the gunners, "we fired it with a lan- 
yard where we knocked out our objective — we kind of knocked out the building that the 106 was in 
too, but it didn't hurt the gun, once we dug it out. " 



According to one of the NCOs, the recoilless rifles 
teamed up with both the 81mm mortar crews and the 
infantry. The 106s would blast "holes into the back of 
buildings so that units could get in without using the 
normal exit." Marine recoilless rifle gunners flushed 
out the NVA and then forward observers for the 81s 
called in the mortars: "Blowing the buildings open so 
that the infantry could get through." Sergeant Terry 
Cochrane, the platoon sergeant of the 2d Battalion's 
106mm platoon, remembered that the gunners even 
fired one recoilless rifle from inside one of the Univer- 
sity buildings. Unable to position their weapon to 
knock out a machine gun that blocked the battalion's 
advance, Cochrane and his gunners took their 460- 
pound recoilless rifle "inside . . . and we fired it with a 
lanyard where we knocked out our objective — we kind 
of knocked out the building that the 106 was in too, 
but it didn't hurt the gun, once we dug it out. "-" 

The North Vietnamese, nevertheless, were still in 
force inside the treasury building. With its thick walls 
and large steel door, the structure remained impervious 
to Company F's repeated efforts to force its way into the 



building, despite the use of recoilless rifles and tanks. 
The NVA covered with fire all avenues of approach. At 
this point, according to one account. Major Ralph J. 
Salvati, the 2d Battalion's executive officer, suggested 
employing CS (a variant of tear gas) against the enemy. 
Salvati told Cheatham that he had seen a stack of E— 8 
CS launchers in the MACV compound and proposed 
that he go and obtain them. Lightweight and compact, 
one launcher could fire 64 CS canisters in four volleys 
ot 16 each. After a jeep trip in which he acquired the 
launchers, Salvati joined Captain Downs in an aban- 
doned school near the treasury.-^' 

Putting on their gas masks, Salvati and two 
enlisted Marines ran into an adjoining courtyard and 
set up the launcher. After a misfire, the Marine major 
hooked up a battery to the trigger mechanism. This 
time the E— 8 launcher hurled the gas canisters into 



* According to a member of the 1st Marines stall. Colonel Hughes 
"stressed the use of the E-8 CS dispenser until no more were available." 
Maj Ernest Cook, Comments on draft ms, dtd 20Oct69, Donnelly and 
Shore, "Ho Chi Minh's Gamble" (Vietnam Comment Files). 



184 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Top picture is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A37 11 22 and bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A372950 
Top, Marines from the 2d Battalion, 5 th Marines wearing gas masks are about to flush out enemy 
soldiers holding out in a stronghold. The Marines used CS (a variant of tear gas) to disable the 
enemy and curtail casualties. Bottom, a Marine M48 tank is stationed next to the blown An Cuu 
bridge. With the bridge down, the main land resupply route into the city from Phu Bai was closed. 




THE STRUGGLE EOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



185 



rhe treasury compound and within minutes pro- 
duced a huge chemical haze. With the gas permeat- 
ing the building and under the protective fire of 
81mm mortars and 3. 5 -inch rockets, goggle-eyed 
Marines of Company F pushed forward in their gas 
masks. According to Captain Downs, once the 
Marines got inside the building, "the NVA wanted 
no part of us and they exited the building as quick- 
ly as they could."-'' 

Until 4 February, the An Cuu Route 1 bridge over 
the Phu Cam Canal still stood and permitted the 
Marines to reinforce the troops in Hue. On the 
morning of the 4th, Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines arrived in a "Rough Rider" armed convoy 
and joined Lieutenant Colonel Gravel's command. 
That night, however, North Vietnamese sappers 
blew the bridge, effectively closing the land route 
into the city. This left the Marine command only two 
alternatives to resupply the Hue forces — river traffic 
and helicopters. With the continuing mist and over- 
cast, every helicopter mission was a hit-and-miss 
venture. More than once, heavy enemy 12.7mm 
antiaircraft fire forced Marine pilots to jettison their 
loads of ammunition slung underneath their low-fly- 
ing helicopters. The river route also presented prob- 
lems. Taking advantage of the narrow ship channel 
up the Perfume River from the sea, the enemy sub- 
jected allied craft to both mortar bombardment and 
automatic weapons fire.^" 

In the interval, nevertheless. Task Force X-Ray 
had taken advantage of the reprieve to build up the 
combat stocks of the 1st Marines in Hue. On the 4th, 
Marine trucks from Company B, 1st Motor Transport 
Battalion brought in enough rations to sustain both 
infantry battalions in Hue for two days. The follow- 
ing day, a Navy LCU from Da Nang braved the NVA 
crossfire from both banks of the Perfume River and 
docked at the LCU ramp in the city. In Hue, the 1st 
Marines now had enough rations to last through 16 
February. With the arrival of a second LCU on the 
5th, and another landing craft three days later, the 
regiment experienced no shortage of ammunition 
despite its expenditure at 10 times the normal com- 
bat rate in Vietnam.^' 

Block by Block 3—8 February 

The Marines in Hue began to adapt to the street 
fighting, so different from the paddies and jungle oi 
the Vietnamese countryside in their previous sectors. 
As Captain Christmas ol the 2d Battalion later 



observed, "street fighting is the dirtiest type of fight- 
ing I know." Although one Marine fire team leader 
agreed with Christmas that "it's tougher in the 
streets," he also remarked, "it beats fighting in the 
mud .... You don't get tired as quickly when you 
are running and you can see more of the damage 
you're doing to the enemy because they don't drag 
off their dead."^- 

One of the immediate problems caused by the 
change of locale from the countryside to the urban 
was in orientation. Both Lieutenant Colonels Grav- 
el and Cheatham complained about the inadequacy 
of their maps. Originally their only references were 
the standard l:50,000-scale tactical maps which 
showed little of the city detail. As Captain Mead- 
ows, commander of Company G, observed, "you 
have to raid the local Texaco station to get your 
street map. That's really what you need." Both bat- 
talions eventually obtained sufficient maps, which 
numbered the government and municipal buildings 
and prominent features of the city. Cheatham and 
Gravel and their commanders used the numbers to 
coordinate their activity. '3* 

Prior to that time. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham 
and his commanders used colors to designate their 
positions. Captain Christmas later related some of 
the resulting confusion. He would radio Captain 
Downs and yell, "Hey, I'm in a pink building." 
Downs would reply, "Hey, that's fine. I'm over here 
in a green building." Then Captain Meadows would 
chime in with "Good! I'm in a brown building. " At 
this point. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham would 
come up on the network and ask, "Where the hell are 
the green, brown, and pink buildingsP''^-* 

By this time. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham had a 
firm idea about the extent of the task that his battalion 
faced. The 2d Battalion had an area of operations about 
1 1 blocks wide and 8 to 9 blocks deep. As the battal- 
ion commander later declared: "It wasn't that big [but] 
it looked plenty big at the time." He recalled that he 
"attempted to . . . attack with two companies up and 
keep that third company ot mine back, protecting our 
left flank." Cheatham admitted that usually he had to 
commit his reserve: "The area was just too large for one 
infantry battalion, minus a company, to attack. "^' 



* General Downs commented on the map situation as follows: 
"Chuck Meadows may well have taken a map ott the gas station wall 
but the ones we used were 1:12,500 AMS [Army Map Service] maps. 
They were most valuable. Initially, I think there were only three in 
the battalion with only the company commanders having one." 
Downs Comments. 



186 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371220 
A Marine from Company H. 2d Battalion. 5 th Marines, 
holding a M60 machine gun inside the bathroom of a pri- 
vate household, looks out the window for enemy forces in 
house-to-house fighting in Hue. Strapped to his back is an 
apparent ammunition box. 

With little room to outflank the enemy, the battal- 
ion had to take each building and each block "one at a 
time." According to Cheatham, "we had to pick a 
point and attempt to break that one strong point . . . 
and then we'd work from there." After a time, 
Cheatham and his officers noted that the enemy 
"defended on every other street. . . . When we would 
take him off one street, we would usually push 
through the next row of houses fairly quickly and then 
hit another defensive position. "^i^ 

The close-quarter combat and the low-lying cloud 
cover prevented both Marine infantry battalions from 
depending upon air and artillery. Fixed-wing close air 
support was out of the question. Both units used 
artillery only occasionally and then usually later in 
the operation and for interdiction missions on sus- 
pected enemy approach and escape routes. As Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Gravel explained, "artillery in an area 
like that is not terribly effective because you can't 
observe it well enough. You lose the rounds in the 



buildings, in the streets . . . and you have a difficult 
time with perspective. "^'* 

Supported by the four tanks from the provisional 
platoon of the 3d Tank Battalion which arrived with 
the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines on the 31st and a pla- 
toon of Ontos from the Anti-Tank Company, 1st Tank 
Battalion, the Marine infantry' advanced methodically 
against stubborn enemy resistance. Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham had reservations about the employment of 
the tanks in his sector. He later commented, "you 
couldn't put a section of tanks down one of those 
streets. The moment a tank stuck its nose around the 
corner of a building, it looked like the Fourth of July." 
The enemy opened up with all the weapons in its arse- 
nal from B— 40 anti-tank rockets to machine guns. 
According to Cheatham, one tank sustained over 120 
hits and another went through five or six crews. The 
battalion commander observed that when the "tankers 
came out of those tanks . . . they looked like they were 
punch drunk. "^s 

The Marine infantry commanders were much 
more enthusiastic about the Ontos with its six 
106mm recoilless rifles. Despite its "thin skin," Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Cheatham described the vehicle "as 
big a help as any item of gear that we had that was 
not organic to the battalion . . . ." An even stronger 
backer of the Ontos, Colonel Fiughes, the 1st Marines 
commander, later commented "If any single support- 
ing arm is to be considered more effective than all 
others, it must be the 106mm recoilless rifle, espe- 
cially the M50 Ontos . . . ." Hughes believed that the 
mobility of the Ontos made up for the lack of heavy 
armor protection and that its plating provided the 
crew with sufficient protection against enemy small 
arms fire and grenades. iFrom ranges of 300 to 500 
meters, the 106mm recoilless rifles rounds routinely 
opened "4 square meter holes or completely 
knock[ed} out an exterior wall. " |Even at distances of 
1,000 meters, the recoilless rifles proved effective. 
Because of the Ontos' vulnerability to enemy RPGs 
and B— 40 rounds. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham 



* Colonel Robert C. V. Hughes, who as a lieutenant colonel com- 
manded the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines in artillery support of TF X- 
Ray, commented that while use of artillery was limited, especially the 
105mm howitzers, "the heavier more accurate, 155mm and 8-inch 
were utilized more effectively." He declared that his battalion's fire 
support coordinator with the 1st Marines "from an OP [outpost] on the 
roof of the MACV Headquarters building, called and adjusted fire mis- 
sions. He was able to accurately 'walk' rounds along streets disrupting 
enemy troop buildup and sniper emplacements." Col Robert C. V. 
Hughes, Comments on draft, n.d. [1995] (Vietnam Comment File). 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



187 




The top picture is courtesy of LtCol Ralph J. Salvati, USMC (Ret) and the bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371 125 
Top, LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, in forefront of the picture, directs a target for a Marine Ontos 
equipped with six 1 06mm recoilless rifles, along Le Loi Street. The Perfume River can be seen in the 
background as well as the Citadel across the river. Bottom, Marines from Company H. 2d Battalion, 
3th Marines take cover behind a partially destroyed brick wall in heavy street fighting in Hue City. 




THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371 124 
A Marine from Company H, 2d Battalion, 3 th Marines carries an elderly woman patient out of 
the hospital complex to relative safety. During the heavy fighting, the Marines evacuated the patients 
from the hospital as best they could. 



employed the vehicle in hull defilade, "even if the 
defilade was only behind a brick wall . . . ."39 

Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham reserved his greatest 
praise for his own battalion's organic supporting 
weapons, including 106mm recoilless rifles, the 3.5- 
inch rockets, and mortars. He especially liked the 3.5- 
inch rockets that could penetrate 1 1 inches of steel 
and "that thing would pop these walls." He specifical- 
ly remembered one firefight that lasted for nearly two 
hours between Marine and enemy gunners shooting 
3. 5 -inch and B— 40 rockets at one another at a range of 
50 meters. Cheatham recalled "hundreds and hun- 
dreds of rockets going out . . . And the same thing is 
coming back at us. But we had more ammunition 
than they did."'"* , 

Company F's commander, Captain Downs, recol- 
lected the similar use of 81mm mortars at extremely 



* Brigadier General Downs, who commanded Company F in Hue 
City, wrote in 1994 that Cheatham should receive credit for bringing 
the 3.5 rocket launchers and ammunition into the city with him: "He 
collected them from the 2/5 company supplies at Phu Bai. We had not 
been carrying any with us." Downs recalled that the manuals stated 
that the 3.5s and the LAAWs were similar, but "in fact the 3.5's were 
far more effective." Downs Comments, Dec94. 



close quarters. He regularly brought his own mortar 
fire within 35 meters of his men: "We were on one side 
of the street and the 81s were fired on the other side of 
the street." Cheatham compared his battalions appli- 
cation of 81mm mortars to a sledge hammer: "If you 
put enough 81 rounds on top of a building, pretty soon 
the roof falls in." Captain Downs remembered that his 
orders from Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham were that "if 
we even suspected that the enemy were in a building 
to blow it down." In Down's opinion, this was when 
"we really became serious about retaking the city."-*' 

On the morning of 5 February, both Marine battal- 
ions resumed the attack in a southwesterly direction 
toward the city hospital and provincial headquarters. 
On the right flank, Captain Christmas' Company H 
advanced along Le Loi street, paralleling the river- 
front. The two companies of the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines secured the left flank. Lieutenant Colonel 
Gravel tried to keep a two-block front, which he later 
explained, "is simple enough. But when you realize 
that there's no one on your left . . . you've got to 
expand this out . . . ." This took troops, "resources that 
we were very, very short of" Lieutenant Smith later 
wrote that 5 February was "an extremely rough day" 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



189 



with the battahon sustaining 19 casualties and 
advancing "only 75 yards." Gravel remembered, "The 
going was slow. We would go, maybe a block. We 
fought for two days over one building." '- 

Although both battalions encountered "moderate to 
heavy" enemy resistance on the 5th, Lieutenant 
Colonel Cheatham's 2d Battalion, 5th Marines made 
somewhat faster progress. About 1630, Captain Mead- 
ow's Company G secured the main hospital building 
after a 90-minute firefight supported by a M48 tank, 
106mm recoilless rifles, and 3- 5 -inch rockets. The 
Marines removed the civilian patients as best they 
could from the line of fire, killed 4 NVA soldiers, and 
took 30 wounded prisoners. For the day, the three com- 
panies of the battalion accounted for over 70 North 
Vietnamese dead and 40 captured enemy weapons.'*^ 

The following morning, Cheatham's battalion con- 
tinued clearing the hospital complex with all three 
companies on line. Two of the companies, H on the 
right and G in the center, met with relatively minor 
resistance, and quickly consolidated their positions. 
Company F on the battalion's left flank, however, took 
heavy fire from its front and pulled back to call in both 
81mm mortars and for one of the few times, even 
105mm howitzer support from Marine artillery for- 
ward gun sites. About 40 high explosive 105mm shells 
fell upon the enemy. By late afternoon, the NVA broke 
contact under fire and the Marine company secured the 
last of the hospital buildings. Down's company sus- 
tained 4 dead and 1 1 wounded, but killed over 20 of 
the enemy.-i^* 

In the interim. Captain Meadow's Company G, 
from the hospital complex, launched its attack against 
the provincial prison, just to the southwest. While the 
1st Platoon provided protective fire from the second 
story of the main hospital building. Marine mortarmen 
and 106mm recoilless rifle gunners blasted a hole in 
the prison walls. One Marine corporal remembered 
that the Marines fired CS canisters into the gaping 
hole, hoping to force the enemy troops out, but "they 
threw it [the CS} back against us."-'^ 



*Then captain, now Brigadier General Downs, recalled years later, 
that after securing the hospital complex, his company entered a near- 
by building by the Perfume River. As Downs joined his men, one of 
his platoon sergeants "had two Vietnamese spread eagled up against 
the wall," When the company commander asked who they were, the 
sergeant answered that one of them was "trying to tell me that he is the 
mayor of Hue." One of the Vietnamese turned out to be Lieutenant 
Colonel Pham Van Khoa, the South Vietnamese Thua Thien Province 
Chief who had been hiding until then in an attic cubby hole with his 
body guard. Downs Tiiped Comments, Dec92. See also Chapter 12. 



Believing the NVA were also equipped with gas 
masks, the Marine infantry, wearing their masks, cau- 
tiously searched the rooms and cells of the prison 
beginning with the top floor. As a Marine squad leader. 
Sergeant G. B. Zachary, related: "Clear the top deck 
and work your way down." Second Lieutenant Michael 
A. McNiel, Company G's 1st Platoon commander, 
described the taking of his unit's first prisoner, an NVA 
sniper, equipped with both a SKS and a Ml rifle and 
eight grenades. Although McNiel had a Thompson 
submachine gun in the man's face, the prisoner tried to 
jump Sergeant Zachary and take one of the latter 's 
grenades. The Marine lieutenant wrestled the NVA 
soldier down to the floor with a "half nelson" and then 
bound his hands behind his back. Yet, the Marines 
"had to carry him down, with him fighting all the 
way." According to McNiel's account, his platoon took 
eight more prisoners, who threw "down their weapons, 
raised their hands and came walking out."** In the cap- 
ture of the prison, Company G killed 36 NVA at a cost 
of only 1 Marine wounded. ^'^ 

On the 2d Battalion's right flank. Captain Christ- 
mas' Company H encountered tough going after it left 
the hospital and pushed forward toward the nearby 
provincial headquarters. Like its sister companies, 
Company H employed mortars, gas, and 106mm 
recoilless rifles to soften up the objective. A Marine dri- 
ver of one of the flatbed mules mounting a 106mm 
recoilless rifle later stated: 

[The] NVA threw everything they had at us. We 
took incoming mortars and rockets and automatic fire. 
We had to push the mule out, fire, and pull it back in 
under heavy sniper fire while we were firing. We opened 
up the way for the 'grunts' [the infantry] to take the 
building. 

Two Marine tanks came up to support the attack. 
One of the tanks took two direct hits from B— 40 rock- 
ets but continued to fire. In addition, the Marines 
expended over 100 81mm mortar shells, 60 recoilless 
rifle rounds, and 4 E8 CS launchers in support of the 
assault on the headquarters. Wearing their gas masks, 
the tired Marines of Company H, in midafternoon, 
finally overwhelmed the NVA defenders in the provin- 
cial headquarters. They killed 27 enemy soldiers, took 



** Lieutenant McNiel's version is somewhat at odds with the offi- 
cial after-action report. The report shows only two prisoners captured in 
the fight for the prison. If the report is accurate, McNiel may have con- 
fused the five ARVN soldiers and two South Vietnamese prison officials 
who were liberated in the battle with North Vietnamese soldiers. 2dLt 
Michael A. McNiel in LCpl Charles D. Bedford et a!., intvw, 10 May 
68, Tape 267.^ (Oral HistCoU, MCHC); 2/5 AAR Hue City. 



190 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




V\fi> 




Photo is from the Abel Collection 
Happy Marines from Company H, 2d Battalion, 3th 
Marines display the Viet Cong banner that flew from a 
flagpole in the courtyard of the Provincial Building. The 
Marines raised the American flag in its stead, ignoring for 
a time a MACV directive that forbade the display of the 
U.S. flag without the South Vietnamese flag beside it. 



3 prisoners, and captured an assortment of enemy small 
arms and ammunition. The company sustained 1 dead 
and 14 wounded in the fight.^' 

The province headquarters had served as a symbol 
for both the NVA and the Marines in the modern city. 
A now-frayed flag of the Viet Cong National Libera- 
tion Front had flown from the flagpole in the courtyard 
of the provincial building since the NVA initial 
takeover of the city. Immediately after the capture of 
the headquarters, two Marines rushed into the court- 
yard and hauled down the enemy ensign. Gunnery 
Sergeant Frank A. Thomas "vaulted through a hole in 
the wall" and ran to the flagpole clutching an Ameri- 
can flag. As a CBS television crew filmed the event, 
Thomas raised the Stars and Stripes on the pole.* 
According to Thomas, "We never knew exactly where 
the flag came from, but when we said we wanted an 
Ajmerican flag to raise, one of our Marines produced 
one a very few minutes later." For this one time, the 
Marines ignored the MACV directive that forbade the 
display of the U.S. flag without the South Vietnamese 
national banner beside it.^s** 

The capture of the provincial headquarters was 
more than symbolic. The building apparently had 
served as the command post for the 4th NVA Regiment. 
Once the headquarters fell to the Marines much of the 
enemy organized resistance in southern Hue collapsed. 
Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham remarked on the 
enemy's lack of maneuverability. Once the Marines 
overcame a NVA strongpoint, although a gap might 
exist between the Marine companies, the enemy troops 
"never enveloped, they never came back around behind 
us or anything." As Lieutenant Smith from the 1st Bat- 
talion, 1st Marines wrote, trom 6 February forward 
"[Company] A began to roll and although we took 
more casualties, we never had a day to match" the ear- 
lier fighting. Lieutenant Colonel Gravel was even more 
emphatic: 

He [the NVA] seemed to lose his stomach for the 
fight. . . . once we started rolling . . . the main force sort 



* Former Washington Post Correspondent Peter Braestrup comment- 
ed that as the flag was raised, "NVA soldiers in covered foxholes were 
discovered at the same time — and shown on CBS film." Peter 
Braestrup, Comments on draft, n.d. [Dec94— Jan95] (Vietnam Com- 
ment File). 

** Brigadier General Downs, who commanded Company F in 
1968, related that in September 1991 when the Aegis Cruiser CO 66 
Hue City was officially commissioned, "The first flag raised on that ship 
was the same flag that was raised in front of the Provincial Headquar- 
ters Building on 6Feb68 and the flag was raised by Gunny Thomas and 
the two Marines who assisted him." Downs Taped Comments, Dec92. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE SECOND PHASE 



191 



of evaporated . . . and left some local force — rinky dinks 
. . . when his defense crumbled, it crumbled. ''9 

On the morning of 7 February, both Marine battal- 
ions renewed their offensive. On the right flank, 
Cheatham's battahon with two companies on hne and 
one in reserve made rapid progress. According to the 
battahon's entry for the day in its after-action report, "it 
became quite obvious the enemy had retreated leaving 
bodies and weapons behind." On the left flank, the 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines also moved forward, but at a 
slower pace, and met pockets of heavy resistance. The 
NVA knocked out an Ontos supporting the battalion 
with a B-40 rocket, killing the driver and wounding 
the vehicle's commander After a firefight, a platoon 
from Company B retrieved the damaged vehicle, evac- 
uated the wounded Marine, and recovered the body of 
the dead man.'" 

By 10 February, despite some desperate efforts by 
isolated groups of NVA and the occasional sniper, the 
two Marine battalions had reached their objectives. 
With the Marines in control south of the Perfume 
River and the NVA still holding fast in the Citadel 
north of the river, Hue was now indeed two cities. 
Three days earlier. North Vietnamese sappers had 
blown the main bridge across the Perffime, literally 
dividing the city in two. Marine engineers destroyed 
the Le Loi Bridge at the end of Le Loi Street to prevent 
the enemy from bringing reinforcements into southern 
Hue from the west. At the same time, the 1st Battal- 
ion, 1st Marines, reinforced by Company G, had 
secured the northern end of the wrecked An Cuu 
Bridge over the Phu Cam Canal. Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham and the remaining companies of the 2d Bat- 



talion prepared to cross the Phu Cam and enter a new 
area of operations south of the city.'i 

In clearing the modern city, the Marines took a 
heavy toll of the enemy, but at a high cost to them- 
selves. The Americans had accounted for over 1,000 
enemy dead, took 6 prisoners, and detained 89 sus- 
pects. Marine casualties included 38 dead and about 
320 wounded. Company H had been particularly hard 
hit. Every officer, including Captain Christmas, and 
most of the staff NCOs had sustained wounds. Corpo- 
rals were now squad leaders. One Marine from Com- 
pany G observed, "we would start getting new guys 
and it just seemed that every time we got new guys we 
would lose them just as fast as we got them." Another 
Marine from the same unit remarked, "the stink — you 
had to load up so many wounded, the blood would dry 
on your hands. In two or three days you would smell 
like death itself "5- 

With the Marine lines secure, the South Vietnamese 
authorities assisted by U.S. military and civilian advi- 
sors began to bring some semblance of order into 
southern Hue. They established a refugee center at the 
University for the hapless civilians unexpectedly 
caught in the middle of a war The National Police 
began to take harsh measures against both civilians and 
ARVN troops participating in the wholesale looting 
that occurred behind the Marine advance. By 13 Feb- 
ruary, Marine engineers had built a pontoon bridge 
alongside the destroyed An Cuu span and Marine truck 
convoys brought in much-needed supplies and food for 
both the troops and the civilian population. Although 
the battle for southern Hue was largely over, the fight 
for the Citadel had just begun.'^ 



CHAPTER 1 1 

The Struggle for Hue — Stalemate in the Old City 

A Faltering Campaign — Going into the Walled City — The Fight for the Tower — Continuing the Advance 



A Faltering Campaign 

Wliile the Marines cleared the new city, the South 
Vietnamese offensive in the Citadel had faltered. In the 
first days of the campaign, the 1st Battalion, 3d ARVN 
Regiment had cleaned out much of the northwest cor- 
ner of the old city while the 1st ARVN Airborne Task 
Force, just south of the 1st Battalion, attacked from the 
Tay Loc airfield towards the western wall. To the east, 
the 4th Battalion, 2d ARVN Regiment advanced 
south from the Maiig Ca compound toward the former 
imperial palace grounds, enclosed within its own walls 
and moats." The battalion made excellent progress 
until enemy resistance stiffened about half-way toward 
the objective. By 4 February, the 1st ARVN Division 
reported that it had killed nearly 700 NVA troops in 
the Citadel.' 

At this point. General Truong, the 1st ARVN Divi- 
sion commander, decided to make some readjustment 
in his lines. On the 5th, he moved the airborne task 
force's three battalions into the northeast sector, reliev- 
ing the 4th Battalion, 2d ARVN. Assuming responsi- 
bility for the airfield, the 4th battalion, on the follow- 
ing day, pushed forward all the way to the southwest 
wall. At the same time, the 1st Battalion, 3d ARVN 
Regiment recaptured the An Hoa gate in the north- 
western corner of the Citadel. South of the Citadel, just 
north of the Perfume River, the remaining three bat- 
talions of the 3d ARVN Regiment, futilely butted 
against the southeastern wall of the old city in an effort 
to roll up the enemy defenses from that direction.- 

On the night of 6—7 February, the NVA counterat- 
tacked. Using grappling hooks, fresh North Viet- 
namese troops scaled the southwestern wall and forced 
the 2d Battalion, 4th ARVN to fall back with heavy 
losses to the Tay Loc airfield. That afternoon, the cloud 



*Col Arthur J. Poillon, the operations officer of Task Force X-Ray, 
recalled that the term Citadel caused some initial confusion as it was 
"sometimes used to identify the old walled city and sometimes to iden- 
tify the palace grounds." Col A. J. Poillon, Comments on draft ms, 
30Oct69, Donnelly and Shore, "Ho Chi Minh's Gamble" (Vietnam 
Comment Files). In the present text, Citadel is used to refer to the 
entire old walled city. 



cover lifted enough for South Vietnamese Air Force 
fixed-wing aircraft to drop 25 500-pound bombs on 
the now NVA-occupied southwest wall of the Citadel.' 

With the NVA pouring reinforcements into the old 
city. General Truong once more redeployed his own 
forces. He ordered the three battalions of the 3d ARVN 
Regiment south of the Citadel to give up the apparent 
hopeless effort to force the southeastern walls and move 
into the city. On the afternoon of the 7th, the 3d 
ARVN Regimental headquarters and the three battal- 
ions embarked on South Vietnamese motorized junks 
which landed the troops at a wharf north of Hue. The 
3d ARVN units then entered the Citadel through the 
northern gate and took up new positions at the 1st 
Division Maiig Ca compound. By that evening. Gen- 
eral Truong had inside the Citadel four airborne bat- 
talions, the Black Panther Company, two armored cav- 
alry squadrons, the 3d ARVN Regiment with all four 
battalions, the 4th Battalion from the 2d ARVN Reg- 
iment, and a company from the 1st ARVN Regiment.^ 

Despite the ARVN troop buildup in the old city. 
General Truong 's forces made almost no flirther head- 
way against the enemy. For the next few days, the 
ARVN ran up against dug-in NVA who refused to be 
budged. The North Vietnamese still controlled about 
60 percent of the Citadel. Infiltrating well-fed and 
well-equipped replacements each night into the old 
city, the North Vietnamese continued to hold their 
own against the ARVN." 

To the west, the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division 
(Airmobile) was having about as little luck as the 
ARVN forces in the Citadel against the North Viet- 
namese. Major General John J. Tolson, the division 
commander, recalled, "I was to seal off the city from the 
west and north with my right flank on the Perfume 
River." Tolson observed, however, that the weather and 
low-ceiling of 150—200 feet combined with the enemy 
antiaircraft weapons "made it impractical and illogical 
to contemplate an air assault by any unit of the Divi- 
sion, in the close proximity of Hue."''' 

As the vanguard of Colonel Hubert S. Campbell's 
3d Brigade, the 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry started out 
on foot the early morning of 3 February in a cold driz- 



192 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



193 



zle from its landing zone, some 10 miles northwest of 
Hue. With the mission "to move towards Hue, make 
contact with the enemy, fix his location, and destroy 
him," the battalion advanced southeastward along a 
route paralleling Route 1. About 1000, the American 
troops saw a North Vietnamese battalion setting up 
defenses in Que Chu, about 500 meters to their front. 
A tree-lined and thickly vegetated hamlet in a model 
Revolutionary Development village called La Chu by 
the South Vietnamese and the La Chu Woods by the 
Communists, Que Chu extended 200 meters north 
and south and was about 75 meters wide. Armed with 
machine guns, AK-47s, and recoilless rifles, and sup- 
ported by mortars, the North Vietnamese occupied 
positions originally prepared by ARVN troops. Under 
cover of rocket fire from especially equipped helicopter 
gunships of the division's Aerial Rocket Artillery 
(ARA) Squadron, the American infantry attacked. 
Finally after several hours, the 2d Battalion cracked the 
enemy defenses and established a night perimeter in 
northern Que Chu.^ 

After a relatively uneventfiil night disturbed by an 
occasional enemy mortar round, the 1st Cavalry unit 
faced a fire storm early the following morning. Under 
cover of darkness the enemy had moved up reinforce- 
ments in regimental strength and, after a heavy mortar 
barrage at daybreak, launched a counterattack. Sur- 
rounded and outnumbered, but supported by artillery 
and the ARA helicopters, the 2d Battalion repulsed 
several of the enemy efforts. Forced into a shrinking 
perimeter, the 2d Battalion had sustained casualties of 

I I dead and 5 1 wounded in the two days fighting for 
Que Chu. The battalion had accounted for eight 
known enemy dead and captured one prisoner. In 
assessing the situation that night, General Cushman's 

III MAF headquarters informed MACV, "it is believed 
that the 2/12 Cav is blocking a possible exfiltration 
route for the [NVA] forces involved in the battle of 
Hue City. "8 

At this time, Lieutenant Colonel Richard S. Sweet, 
the commanding officer of the 2d Battalion, more con- 
cerned about the enemy overrunning his positions 
rather than blocking any exfiltration route from Hue, 
held a hasty conference with his staff and company 
commanders. Although the 3d Brigade headquarters 
and Lieutenant Colonel James B. Vaught's 5th Battal- 
ion, 7th Cavalry had arrived in the landing zone to the 
north, the 2d Battalion could not'expect any reinforce- 
ments until the next day. Sweet and his officers decid- 
ed upon a night march to elude the enemy and set up 
their defenses in a more favorable terrain. Believing the 



North Vietnamese would expect a breakout toward the 
north. Sweet decided to move to the high ground, 
4,000 meters to the southwest, overlooking a sec- 
ondary road and the Song Sao, one of the tributaries of 
the Perfume River. Under the cover of darkness, the 
battalion slipped out of Que Chu at 2200 unnoticed by 
the North Vietnamese. Slogging its way through the 
wet paddylands, the battalion arrived at the hill mass, 
Nha Nhan, by 0700 the next morning. Dominating 
the approaches to Hue six kilometers to the east, the 
exhausted men of the 2d Battalion established their 
new perimeter. As one of the troopers later related: 
"We had gotten less than six hours sleep in the past 48 
hours. We didn't have any water and the river water 
was too muddy to drink."'' 

While the 2d Battalion remained on Nha Nhan, 
the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry advanced into the Que 
Chu sector on the afternoon of the 5 th. Patrolling the 
area west of the hamlet. Lieutenant Colonel Vaught's 
men encountered only token resistance. In the mean- 
time, Lieutenant Colonel Sweet's 2d Battalion believed 
it stopped all enemy daylight movement "by calling 
down artillery on the plains before them." Major Gen- 
eral Tolson even gave thought to move the 2d Battal- 
ion back to Camp Evans. Tolson later stated: "At this 
point, ... I was faced with a couple of situations that 
strained my resources. . . . when Hue was occupied, my 
main land supply line was out." Concerned about pro- 
tecting Camp Evans and his helicopters and support- 
ing his 1st Brigade at Quang Tri City, Tolson believed 
it "obvious at the time I was told to attack towards 
Hue that I already had at least three missions that I felt 
had to be carried out. "i" 

For the time being, General Tolson dismissed any 
idea about bringing the 2d Battalion out of the fight 
for Hue. On 7 February, just northwest of Que Chu, 
Lieutenant Colonel Vaught's 5th Battalion, 7th Caval- 
ry encountered a strong NVA force that had reoccupied 
Que Chu. Unable to push the NVA out, Vaught called 
in ARA helicopters and artillery. The next morning, 
the Army troopers renewed the attack, but were forced 
back in the face of NVA automatic weapons fire, 
RPGs, and mortars. In frustration, the American bat- 
talion dug in for the night." 

At this point, the 3d Brigade commander ordered 
Sweet's 2d Battalion to deploy off its hill and come in 
behind the enemy, squeezing the NVA between the 
two American units. On the morning of 9 February, 
the 2d Battalion troops departed their positions only to 
bump into a North Vietnamese battalion in the hiim- 
let of Bon Tri, about 3,000 meters south of Que Chu. 



194 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Like Vaught's unit, Sweet's battalion had little success 
against the strong enemy defenses. '- 

For the next lew days, the 1st Cavalry units west of 
Hue, like the ARVN in the Citadel, faced stalemate. 
They were able to hold their own, but did not have the 
wherewithal to push the NVA out.* During this peri- 
od, the North Vietnamese command maintained its 
"own support area outside the western wall [of the 
Citadel] . . . capitalizing on the failure of friendly forces 
to isolate the Hue battlefield." As Peter Braestrup, the 
Washington Post correspondent, later wrote, "sealing off 
an eight-mile perimeter [west of Hue] would have 
demanded far more troops . . . than were available."" 

With the clearing of southern Hue by the 1st 
Marines, General Cushman prepared to bring more 
forces into the fight for the entire city. After the 
arrival of General Abrams and the formal establish- 
ment of the MACV Forward headquarters at Phu Bai 
on 12 February, Cushman met with the Army gen- 
eral the following day. They both agreed that the 
"successful conclusion to Operation Hue City was 
the number one priority in ICTZ." The III MAF 
commander relayed this concern to General Tolson, 
who still wanted to return the 2d Battalion, 12th 
Cavalry to Camp Evans. Cushman admonished the 
1st Cavalry commander to give up any notion of 
withdrawing the 2d Battalion from the fight. The 
Marine general stated that the battle was about to 
reach a climax and ordered Tolson to keep his forces 
in position to prevent the enemy from escaping to 
the southwest.' I 

In the interim. General Westmoreland and the 
South Vietnamese Joint General Staff had sent rein- 
forcements to I Corps. The 1st Battalion, 327th Air- 
borne Regiment from the 101st Airborne Division 
had arrived at Phu Bai and came under the opera- 
tional control of Marine Task Force X-Ray. Another 
battalion from the division was on its way by sea. 
The South Vietnamese flew the first elements of the 
Vietnamese Marine Task Force A to Phu Bai from 
Saigon to relieve the battered Airborne Task Force in 
the Citadel. At Phu Bai, on 9 February, Brigadier 
General Foster C. LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray 
commander, had ordered his 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines to prepare to move into Hue.'^ 



*As U.S. Army hisrorian George L. MacGarrigle observed, "the 
enemy probably wa.s content to contain him [the Army forces west of 
Hue], rather than risk a major fight should the weather clear, giving the 
1st Cavalry an opportunity to 'pile-on.'" George L. MacGarrigle, Histo- 
rian, CMH, Oimments on draft, drd 5Dec94 (Vietnam Comment Pile). 



Going Into the Walled City 

At 0700, 10 February, Company A, 1st Battalion, 
5 th Marines departed the battalion's Phu Loc operating 
area south of Phu Bai for the latter base. Reaching Phu 
Bai about 1100, the company came under the direct 
operational control of the 5th Marines regimental 
headquarters. Colonel Robert D. Bohn, the 5th 
Marines commander, ordered the company into Hue 
city to reinforce the 1st Marines. Approaching the An 
Cuu Bridge that afternoon in a "Rough Rider" convoy, 
the Marine infantrymen dismounted from their trucks, 
crossed the broken span, and entered southern Hue on 
foot. At the same time, the 1st Battalion's Company B 
arrived at Phu Bai as did the lead elements of the 
Army's 1st of the 327th Airborne. The Army battalion 
made ready to relieve the remaining companies of the 
Marine battalion in the Phu Loc sector. The 1st Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines, in turn, was about to expand the 
Marine Operation Hue City into the old Citadel to 
reinforce the ARVN.i" 

Simultaneously, the Marine command attempted to 
improve the coordination for artillery, naval gunfire, 
and other supporting arms for the Citadel fighting. 
Earlier on 8 February, the 1st Field Artillery Group 
(FAG) at Phu Bai, the artillery command for Task 
Force X-Ray, deployed four 155mm howitzers of Bat- 
tery "W", 1st Battalion, 11th Marines to firing posi- 
tions at Gia Le, about 3,000 meters west of Phu Bai, to 
improve supporting fires for the forces in Hue. Two 
days later, the 1st FAG sent two 4.2-inch mortars from 
the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines to the stadium in 
southeast Hue to provide CS (teargas) and heavy mor- 
tar support for the forces in the Citadel. About the 
same time, a 105mm howitzer battery from the 1st 
Battalion, 11th Marines entered the city across the 
newly established pontoon bridge over the Phu Cam 
Canal. From its positions in southern Hue, the battery 
was in position to support the Marines to the north and 
to the west.'" 

On 10 February, the 1st FAG commander, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel John F. Barr ordered two officers on his 
staff to the Citadel area as forward observers. One of the 
officers, First Lieutenant Alexander W Wells, Jr., the 
S— 2 [intelligence officer] on the FAG staff, remem- 
bered that he received word that morning that the 
"colonel" wanted to talk to him. Barr informed Wells 
that he had volunteered the young lieutenant "for a 24- 
hour >nopping-up mission [emphasis in the original]" to 
General Truong in the Citadel to coordinate support- 
ing fires. Wells, whose tour in Vietnam was about over. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



195 



indicated he would rather stay where he was, but Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Barr gave him little choice. '^ 

Shortly after 1630 on the 10th, Wells and his 
radio operator flew by helicopter to the Tay Loc air- 
field in the Citadel where the Marine lieutenant was 
to provide support to the 2d Battalion, 4th ARVN 
and the Black Panther Company, which had just 
retaken the field. As the aircraft approached Tay Loc, 
the enemy took it under sniper fire. The two Marines 
leaped out of the hovering craft and ran into a Quon- 
set hut, near the airfield tower, and "full of Aus- 
tralians [advisors to the Vietnamese units there] play- 
ing cards and drinking scotch." At that point. Wells 
recalled he was told that General Truong wanted to 
see him at the Mang Ca division headquarters com- 
pound, about a mile to the east.i'J 

Upon Wells reaching the division headquarters. 
General Truong briefed him upon his new assignment 
as a forward observer with the "supporting remnants 
of an ARVN Airborne battalion pinned down in a 
forward area." Wells remembered that he "was 
shocked to learn that the [1st Battalion,} 5th Marines 
had not arrived yet and that he and his radioman 
would be the only Americans in actual combat with 
the ARVN." The Vietnamese general pointed out to 
Wells, on a large wall map, the location of his desig- 
nated outpost, surrounded by enemy troops. Truong 
explained the Vietnamese unit required "his 'big guns' 
immediately to break the siege." According to Wells, 
"Truong emphasized . . . that the Emperor's Palace of 
Perfect Peace and the Royal City itself were in a strict 
no-fire zone, but H&I [harassing and interdiction] 
fires could be designated on the outer wall surround- 
ing the Palace grounds. "'" 



After the briefing, two ARVN soldiers, whom 
Wells remembered as rangers, escorted the Marine 
lieutenant and his radioman through the dark streets 
and alleyways to the ruins of a Buddhist pagoda, 
about 500 meters west of the Dong Ba tower. Wells 
recalled it took him about three hours to negotiate 
the half-mile distance from the Mang Ca compound 
to the pagoda. Inside and around the courtyard of the 
temple only a short distance from the Imperial Palace 
were about 100 Vietnamese troops. According to 
Wells, they were surrounded by North Vietnamese 
forces. Given his ominous circumstances, Lieutenant 
Wells nicknamed his refuge the "Alamo." For the 
next two weeks, Wells called in Marine supporting 
artillery and naval gunfire from ships off the coast, 
adjusting his target selection by reference to his map 
and to sound. -I 

In the meantime. General Truong revised his plans 
for the battle of the Citadel. With the arrival of the 
South Vietnamese Marine Task Force A at Phu Bai, he 
proposed to have them replace the battered Vietnamese 
airborne battalions in the eastern sector. The airborne 
units would then return to Phu Bai and be flown back 
to Saigon. Through the chain of command, he asked 
for Task Force X-Ray to provide him with a U.S. 
Marine battalion. The U.S. Marine battalion would 
then relieve the Vietnamese Marines and attack to the 
south. After the arrival of the American Marines, the 
Vietnamese Marines would push to the west and then 
turn south, advancing along the western wall. In the 
meantime, the four 3d ARVN Regiment battalions 
would continue to clear the northwest sector. Eventu- 
ally the allied forces would surround and isolate the 
NVA forces, holed up in the former imperial palace 



Vietnamese Marines deploy after U.S. Marine helicopters, in the background, have brought them into a landing zone near 
Hue. While not depicted in this photo, on 1 1 February, Marine helicopters had brought one company and the Task Force 
Headquarters directly into the Citadel. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A422067 



>>■ 





*■'*•*; 

.-«,' aj^ 



196 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



ENTRY TO 1ST RVN 
DIVISION COMPOUND 




COPY OF BRIEFING MAP AND COMMENTARY 
PROVIDED BY COL ROBERT H. THOMPSON, 
USMC (RET.), TO KEITH B. NOLAN 




Meters L 



500 
I 



1000 

I 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



197 



grounds, which separated the Vietnamese and Ameri- 
can Marine sectors." 

As was often the case, events overtook the plans. 
Although the Vietnamese Marine Task Force A and its 
1st Battalion arrived at Phu Bai from Saigon on 9 Feb- 
ruary and came under the operational control of the 
1st ARVN Division, the Vietnamese Marines 
remained at Phu Bai. In a meeting with the Viet- 
namese Marine commander. Major Hoang Thong, at 
Task Force X-Ray headquarters, Brigadier General 
LaHue suggested that Thong deploy immediately to 
the Citadel. Major Thong, however, declined until the 
rest of his command joined him. The Vietnamese 
commander explained that he "was acting under writ- 
ten instructions promulgated by the Vietnamese Joint 
General Staff which prohibited piecemeal [commit- 
ment] . . . of his force. "23* 

The support elements of the Vietnamese Marine 
Task Force reached Phu Bai on the night of 1 Febru- 
ary from Saigon and Major Thong began his prepara- 
tions to move the 1st Battalion into the Citadel. On 
the morning of 1 1 February, U.S. helicopters started 
the helilift of the Vietnamese Task Force headquarters 
and 1st Battalion into the Citadel. Low ceiling and 
drizzle forced a halt in the air movement of the Viet- 
namese Marines with only the task force headquarters 
and one company of the 1st Battalion in the old city. 
General LaHue proposed to Major Thong that he 
order the remainder of the battalion be trucked to 
southern Hue and then board LCM (landing craft 
mechanized) for the trip downriver to a landing site 
north of the Citadel. The Marines would then move on 
foot into the city. Again Major Thong refused "as he 
did not feel that either route was sufficiently secured." 
It would be two days before additional units of the 
Vietnamese Marine task force joined the one company 
in the Citadel.-' 

In the meantime, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines 
began to go into the old city. Shortly after 1045 on 11 
February, Marine CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopters lift- 
ed three platoons of Company B from the Phu Bai air- 
field to the Mang Ca compound in the Citadel. Enemy 
gunfire wounded the pilot of the helicopter carrying 
the 3d Platoon, forcing him to abort the mission and 
return to Phu Bai with the troops still on board. Later 



that day, Company A with five tanks attached from the 
1st Tank Battalion embarked in a Navy LCU at the 
ramp in southern Hue. After their relatively unevent- 
ful cross-river passage, the Marine company and tanks 
joined the two platoons of Company B at the 1st 
ARVN Division headquarters. -^ 

On 1 1 February as well. Major Robert H. Thomp- 
son, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines, and his command group accompanied his 
remaining companies from the Phu Loc sector to Phu 
Bai. Only 10 days before. Colonel Bohn, the regimen- 
tal commander, had chosen Thompson, who had 
served with him before as a battalion operations officer, 
to take over the battalion after the wounding of its pre- 
vious commanding officer. Before assuming command 
of the battalion, Thompson, a lieutenant colonel 
selectee, had been the III MAF Embarkation officer.** 
The NVA had prepared a rather undignified assump- 
tion of command ceremony for the new battalion com- 
mander. Thompson recalled: 

The moment I stepped off the hehcopter {at Phu 
Loc] we received mortar incoming. My first 1 5 minutes 
with 1/5 was spent at the bottom of a muddy fighting 
hole with my baggage and several Marines piled on top 
of me. -6 

When Major Thompson arrived at Phu Bai, he 
reported to General LaHue. The Task Force X-Ray 
commander told him that the 1st Marines had largely 
cleared southern Hue, "but that the 1st ARVN Divi- 
sion was having a very difficult time in the Citadel." 
General LaHue stated that Major Thompson's battal- 
ion would be given a zone of action in the Citadel to 
assist the ARVN in cleaning out the remaining NVA 
forces from the city. LaHue expressed some concern 
about Thompson's rank or rather lack of it. According 
to the battalion commander, LaHue feared that "since 
I was only a major, I might be dominated or overly 
influenced by General Truong." General LaHue even 
suggested "making me a brevet colonel. " Major 
Thompson replied that he did not believe that unusu- 
al action would be necessary, since he did not usually 
wear rank insignia in combat. The battalion comman- 
der had the impression that "no one seemed to know 



* Colonel Talman C. Budd 11, who as a major served as an advisor 
to the Vietnamese Marine Taslc Force at Hue, commenced that Major 
Thong was correct in that Vietnamese Armed Forces "policy preclud- 
ed the piecemeal commitment of an operational unit so waiting until 
the other battalion (the 5th) arrived was appropriate." Col Talman C. 
Budd II, Comments on draft, dtd 30Mar95 (Vietnam Comment File). 



** Colonel Rex C. DiUow, who served as the III MAF G-4 or logis- 
tic officer, recalled that Major Thompson had headed the III MAF 
embarkation transportation section and had the responsibility for ship- 
pmg of resupply to Marine units. According to Dillow, Thompson had 
always wanted an infantry assignment, but still had done an "outstand- 
ing job" for him. Dillow stated that he, therefore, "offered no objection 
when Colonel Bohn wanted him for the 5th Marines." Col Rex C. Dil- 
low, Comments on draft, dtd 10Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



198 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A 194565 
A Marine M48 tank in support of the lit Battalion. 3th Marines enters the Citadel. On the 
front turret is an ironic commentary on the war and the anti-war movement reading. "The Orig- 
inal Flower Children. " 



what the actual situation was in the Citadel. I can 
remember General LaHue commenting that it 
shouldn't take more than a few days to clean up the 
Citadel affair. "'" 

After concluding his conversation with General 
LaHue, Major Thompson and his command group, 
together with the 3d Platoon of Company B, depart- 
ed Phu Bai by "Rough Rider" convoy to Hue. Like 
the other 5th Marines battalions, the 1st Battalion 
came under the operational control of the 1st 
Marines. Upon his arrival at the 1st Marines com- 
mand post in the former MACV compound in the 
new city, the battalion commander immediately dis- 
cussed the situation with Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, 
the 1st Marines commander. According to Thomp- 
son, Hughes ordered him to "move up the Perfume 
River in LCUs, land and enter the Citadel from the 
north." He then was "to seek out General Truong 
and advise him of my intentions." Thompson 
recalled that he was to launch a three-company 
attack southward "within a zone of action that 
extended from the inner palace wall on the west to 
the Citadel Wall on the east."^** 



Major Thompson and his advance group spent the 
night of 1 1—12 February in some damaged Hue Uni- 
versity buildings. Just before he retired for the night, 
the battalion commander remembered that "an Army 
major appeared before me in full battle dress, includ- 
ing a .45-caliber pistol." The man identified himself as 
Father Aloysius S. McGonigal, a Catholic chaplain 
assigned to the MACV advisory group. He understood 
that "my chaplain had not accompanied us and asked 
that he be allowed to accompany us to the Citadel." 
According to Thompson, he gladly accepted the offer. 29 

The following afternoon Companies C and D from 
Phu Bai joined Thompson and his small advance party 
at the LCU ramp in the new city. He transferred Com- 
pany D to the operational control of the 2d Battalion, 
5th Marines. Thompson then completed his prepara- 
tions for the crossing of the river to the Citadel side. 
After some delays because of enemy mortar and sniper 
fire on river traffic. Major Thompson's headquarters 
group, the Company B 3d Platoon, and Company C 
embarked on board a Navy LCU for the river passage. 
Although encountering an occasional RPG round or 
enemy sniper fire from both banks of the Perfume 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



199 



River while on board the Navy craft, the Marines land- 
ed at the ferry landing north of the city without inci- 
dent. As the troops were about to start their march to 
the Citadel, Major Thompson later related that "vil- 
lagers warned me that the NVA had set up an ambush 
along the route I had chosen." The Vietnamese civil- 
ians guided the Marines along another road. Upon 
entering the northern gate into the Citadel, the battal- 
ion was met by Captain Fernandez Jennings, Jr., the 
Company B commanding officer, who had arrived the 
previous day, and some ARVN officers. After some 
misunderstanding, the battalion commander con- 
vinced the South Vietnamese to permit the Marine bat- 
talion to come into the 1st Division compound.^" 

After his arrival at the Mang Ca compound, Major 
Thompson met with General Truong and the staff of 
the 1st ARVN Division. According to Major Thomp- 
son, General Truong "was very eager to accommodate 
our plan of attack or anything we wanted to do, for that 
matter." The staff briefed Thompson on the situation, 
advising him that "an ARVN Airborne battalion was 
holding a position in the vicinity of where we wanted 
to launch our attack from and that they would hold 
that position until we passed through that morning."* 
Thompson then prepared his plan. He remembered 
several years later that he proposed "to move from our 
assembly area [in the division compound] at first light 
the next morning in a column of companies to make 
contact with the Airborne battalion which was to serve 
as our line of departure [LOD]." The battalion would 
then advance "with two companies abreast" and one 
company in reserve. 

Again the actual situation differed from what was 
supposed to be. Apparently when the one Vietnamese 
Marine company came into the Citadel the previous 
day, the Vietnamese airborne units departed for Phu 
Bai and Saigon. Unaware of the interruption in the air- 
lift of the Vietnamese Marines, Major Thompson 
radioed Colonel Hughes late on the night of 12 Febru- 
ary that he had no information on the whereabouts of 



*In a copy of a map that Colonel Thompson received in his brief- 
ing and which he in turn provided Keith Nolan, three ARVN airborne 
battalions are shown attacking south in the eastern sector of the 
Citadel. The four battalions of the 3d ARVN Regiment supported by 
an armored cavalry company are attacking towards the western wall. 
Another armored cavalry company, the division headquarters, the 
Black Panther Company, and the division 'reconnaissance company are 
in the Mang Ca Compound. The 2d Battalion, 4th ARVN Regiment 
is outside the Citadel protecting the northern approaches. Map 
attached to Col Robert H. Thompson Itr to Keith W. Nolan, dtd 
16Sep80 (Nola[, Papers, MCHC). 



the two Vietnamese Marine battalions but, "unless 
directed otherwise, intend to commence attack at 13 
[February] 0800 . . . ." Thompson also did not know 
that the Vietnamese airborne had departed the Citadel. 

The Fight for the Tower 

As planned, on the morning of 13 February, the 1st 
Battalion, 5th Marines moved out of the Mang Ca 
compound with two companies abreast — Company A 
on the lefi: and Company C on the right. Company B 
would remain in reserve. From the outset, the Marines 
encountered "enemy elements of squad and platoon 
[size] in well prepared positions and bunkers dug in 
built up areas and along the Citadel walls." In Major 
Thompson's words, "[within] fifteen minutes . . ., all 
Hell broke loose. There was no Airborne unit in the 
area and Company A was up to their armpits in NVA." 
Under fire from automatic weapons, fragmentation 
grenades, B^O rockets, mortars, and AK— 47s, Com- 
pany A, within minutes, sustained 35 casualties. 
Among the wounded was Captain John J. Bowe, Jr., 
the company commander.'' 

At that point, Major Thompson ordered his reserve. 
Captain Jennings' Company B, to relieve Company A. 
First Lieutenant Scott A. Nelson's Company C 
resumed the attack with Company B on its left flank. 
With two tanks in the lead. Company C advanced 
about 300 meters before heavy enemy fire from an 
archway tower along the Citadel's eastern wall leading 
to the Dong Ba Bridge, once more stopped the 
Marines. The NVA had dug in at the base of the wall 
there and "tunneled back underneath this structure." 
While protected by the thick masonry from allied sup- 
porting fires, the enemy could use the archway to bring 
further reinforcements into the Citadel. With the 
Marine battalion about 75 meters short of its original 
proposed line of departure. Colonel Hughes radioed 
Major Thompson to hold his positions, "reorganize and 
prepare plans for continuing attack indicating type fire 
support deemed necessary and desirable. "'- 

Unable to budge the enemy with his present 
resources. Major Thompson replied that he required 
the entire arsenal of allied power to support his attack 
the next morning. Thompson wanted "to walk the 
artillery in front" of his advancing troops and close air 
support missions to soften the enemy defenses. He also 
asked that his Company D, still in the southern city, be 
returned to his operational control in the Citadel." 

On the morning of the l4th, the battalion resumed 
the attack. Offshore, Navy cruisers and ckstroyers 



200 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



opened up with their 5-inch and 8-inch guns. Marine 
8-inch and 155nini howitzers from firing positions at 
Phu Bai and Gia Le added to the bombardment. For 
the first time in several days, the cloud cover lifted for 
a brief period and Marine F— 4B Phantoms and F-8 
Crusader jets flew support missions. First Lieutenant 
Andrew C. Delaurier, a Crusader pilot from 
VMF— 235, observed that as his two-plane flight 
arrived over Hue City there was "extremely heavy air 
activity everywhere." They had to make two runs to 
acquire the target, the Dong Ba tower. Once they had 
it, his wingman "proceeded with one run with zunis 
and snakes and I followed up with the napalm."' 
Although enemy antiaircraft fire hit Delaurier's aircraft 
causing him to leak fuel, he made his way safely back 
to Da Nang.-^^ 

Despite the heavy bombardment, the tower still 
stood. As Major Thompson later explained, the naval 
guns "were accurate, but of little value because their 
flat trajectory either hit the outside of the Citadel wall 
or passed over the wall and any targets that we might 
have had inside the wall." Thompson also praised the 
accuracy of the Marine artillery, but with the battalion 
on the "gun target line** ... it [was] virtually impos- 
sible for us to lean into our fires." In other words, with 
the Marine artillery firing at extreme range and paral- 
lel to the direction of attack, the shell dispersion could 
cause friendly casualties. According to Thompson, the 
NVA also moved forward when the Marines fell back 
to use their supporting arms, "so when the fires were 
lifted we had to fight to retake more ground. '" 

The Marine attack soon stalled. On the right. Com- 
pany C advanced about 100 yards, destroyed an NVA 
rocket position, and captured an enemy soldier who 
walked into the company lines. But on the left flank. 
Company B made no progress against the enemy-occu- 
pied tower. After several futile attempts to take the 
tower. Major Thompson ordered both companies back 
into night defensive positions. 

Earlier that day. Captain Myron "Mike" C. Har- 
rington's Company D had reverted to Thompson's 
command. Harrington brought two of his three pla- 
toons to the LCU ramp in southern Hue for trans- 
portation down river to the Citadel. At the ramp, there 
were two LCUs, but fully loaded with supplies for the 




*"Zunis" refer to 5-inch Zuni rockets, an air-to-surface unguided 
rocket with sohd propeilant while "Snakes" pertain to 250- and 500- 
pound bombs configured with a special tail called "snake eyes." 

**The gun target line was an imaginary straight line from the 
guns to the target. 



Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A373668 
In the fighting in the Citadel, a Marine grenadier fires his 
Ml 9 grenade launcher. Apparently he has modified his 
jacket to include a belt pouch for grenades. He also has one 
grenade stuck in his helmet strap. 

1st Battalion. Harrington squeezed on board one of the 
craft with his headquarters group and one infantry 
squad. Although taking fire from NVA gunners on the 
Citadel wall, the Navy craft safely made the trip across 
the river. Harrington and his small force jumped off 
and waited for the LCUs to make a return trip with the 
rest of the company. 5^ 

At the LCU ramp, the remaining two platoons 
boarded the Navy craft to join their company com- 
mander and his small detachment. Again as the LCUs 
made their way across the Perfume, NVA gunners 
took them under fire. On the opposite shore, two 
Marine 4.2-inch mortars responded with both high 
explosive and CS shells. A sudden shift of wind 
brought the gas fumes back on the Navy boats, blind- 
ing and choking both the sailors and Marines. The 
two LCUs returned to the southern ramp. The ship 
commanders decided against another attempt to cross 
the river. Fortunately after several hours, a Navy Swift 
boat arrived with three Vietnamese junks in tow. 
Armed with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun, the 
Swift boat commander agreed to take the Marines on 
board the junks and tow the small convoy to the other 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



201 



side. After the Swift boat left tine junks at a point off 
shore, the Marines rowed them to the northern land- 
ing site where an impatient Captain Harrington was 
waiting for them. 

Arriving in the Citadel while it was still light, 
about 1800-1900 on the l4th, Harrington and his 
command joined the remainder of the battalion. That 
night. Major Thompson briefed Harrington on the sit- 
uation and told him that it would be Company D's 
turn to go against the tower the next morning. Har- 
rington returned to his company and prepared them 
for the coming attack." 

On the 15th, Marine artillery and naval gunfire 
once more hit the enemy positions. Under the 
pounding this time, part of the tower gave way. 
With another break in the cloud cover, two Marine 
A-^ jets darted in under the gray skies and dropped 
250- and 500-pound bombs on the target.* Backed 
both by tanks and Ontos, the Company D Marines 
pressed forward with Company C protecting its 
right flank. The North Vietnamese, nevertheless, 
defended their positions tenaciously and Major 
Thompson ordered Company B, which had been in 
reserve, again into the attack. After six hours of hard 
fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, Harring- 
ton's 1st Platoon established a foothold at the base 
of the tower. According to one account. Marine Pri- 
vate First Class John E. Holiday made a "one-man 
charge" against an enemy machine gun bunker on 
the wall, firing his "machine gun from the hip, 
'John Wayne' style." The rest of the company fol- 
lowed him and captured the tower. ^s** 

The capture of the tower came at no small cost. 
Thompson's battalion lost 6 men killed and sustained 
more than 50 wounded, while claiming 20 enemy 
dead. That night, Captain Harrington left one squad in 
the tower and established his CP in a damaged house 
below the wall. In a surprise night attack, the NVA 
retook the tower for a brief period. According to Har- 
rington, the Marine squad fell back without orders and 
the company commander at the base of the tower sud- 
denly saw North Vietnamese soldiers crawling over the 
rubble of the tower. Laying down a base of fire from his 



*In 1980, Colonel Harrington in his commencs co Keith Nolan 
recalled only one air strike while he was in Hue and that was while he 
was attached to the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines. Harrington Comments 
on Nolan ms, dtd 24May83 (Harrington Folder, Nolan Papers). The 
battalion repott, however, mentions that the battalion controlled a 
flight of A4s against the Citadel wall. 1/5 AAR, Opn Hue City. 

**A search of award recommendations failed to locate any pre- 
pared for Privaic First Class Holiday for this action. 



defensive positions. Captain Harrington led another 
squad in a counterattack. The tower finally remained 
in Marine hands. ^9 

Continuing the Advance 

On the morning of the l6th, the battalion continued 
to push southeast along the Citadel Wall. Major 
Thompson's Marines immediately made contact, 
"engaging the enemy at extremely close range." Despite 
heavy enemy resistance, the 1st Battalion advanced 
about 150 yards. At that point. Major Thompson called 
a halt to allow fresh supplies reach the battalion. In the 
days' fighting, the Marines accounted for another 63 
North Vietnamese dead while sustaining casualties of 7 
killed and 47 wounded.^" 

For the next few days the 1st Battalion met the 
same close-quarter resistance from the enemy. In con- 
trast to the enemy in southern Hue, the battalion dis- 
covered that the NVA units in the Citadel employed 
"better city-fighting tactics, improved the already for- 
midable defenses, dug trenches, built roadblocks and 
conducted counterattacks to regain redoubts which 
were important to . . . [their] defensive scheme." Major 
Thompson later observed that the older city consisted 
of "row after row of single-story, thick- walled masonry 
houses jammed close together and occasionally separat- 
ed by alleyways or narrow streets." The Marines 
encountered "hundreds of naturally camouflaged, 
mutually supporting, fortified positions." Moreover, 
according to the battalion commander, "both of our 
flanks were exposed to enemy." To the east, or left 
flank, four- or five-story houses stood outside the moat 
from which the "NVA were able to dominate the top 
of the Citadel wall with observation and fire." To the 
west, or right flank, the "imperial palace provided the 
enemy a haven from which he could deliver small arms, 
rocket and mortar fire." Eventually Thompson received 
permission to fire mortars and on a "few occasions to 
have the ARVN fire artillery for us inside. . . the palace 
walls." As Major Thompson wrote in 1980, the enemy 
"had everything going for him."-" 

Thompson countered the enemy fixed defenses with 
heavy artillery, naval gunfire, liberal use of riot control 
agents, and when the weather permitted, fixed-wing 
support. Major Thompson observed, however, "there 
was slow, misty cold rain falling constantly. I don't 
recall seeing the sun during that period and the cloud 
cover broke enough to allow close air support on about 
three brief occasions. " The Marine battalion comman- 
der depended largely on his unit's own firepower, espe- 



202 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190588 
During a lull in the fighting in the Citadel, a Marine takes time out to clean his Ml 6 rifle. 
Marines had discovered through bitter experience that the Ml 6. if not cleaned regularly, was prone 
to jamming. 



cially his mortars and automatic weapons, and the 
tanks and Ontos that reinforced his battalion. He 
placed both the tanks and Ontos under the control of 
the attached tank platoon commander. The infantry 
provided a screen while the mobile Ontos or tanks fur- 
nished direct fire support. In order to enhance observa- 
tion, the tank or Ontos commander together with the 
infantry commander would reconnoiter the target area, 
generally a building blocking the Marine advance. The 
tank or Ontos commander then returned to his vehicle, 
prepared to move forward at full speed as the infantry 
Marines laid down a heavy volume of fire: "Upon 
reaching a position where fire could be placed on the 
target, the vehicle commander halted his vehicle and 
fired two or three rounds into the target then reversing 
his direction, returned quickly within the friendly 
front lines." 

At first, the M48 tank's 90mm guns were relative- 
ly ineffective against the concrete and stone houses; 
shells occasionally even ricocheted back upon the 
Marines. The tank crews then began to use concrete- 
piercing fused shells which "resulted in excellent pen- 



etration and walls were breached with two to four 
rounds." Although casualties among the Ontos and 
tank crews were high, the tanks themselves withstood 
with relatively little damage direct hits by the enemy 
RPG rounds. Major Thompson compared the tankers 
to the "knights of old sallying forth daily from their 
castles to do battle with the forces of evil . . . ." One 
Marine rifleman stated: "If it had not been for the 
tanks, we could not have pushed through that section 
of the city. They {the NVA} seemed to have bunkers 
everywhere. "4' 

From its firing positions in southern Hue, the two- 
tube 4.2-inch mortar detachment from the 1st Battal- 
ion, II th Marines supported the battalions advance 
with both high explosive and CS rounds. One of the 
Marine gunners. Private First Class Edward M. Landry, 
remembered several years later, "I did my job ... on 
the mortar, followed orders, was scared . . . the whole 
time, and took care of my buddies." Landry recalled, 
"we had one sergeant in charge . . . and no officer. 
Which we didn't need anyway as we knew our job." 
On 18 February, he noted in his diary: "Firing a CS 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— STALEMATE IN THE OLD CITY 



203 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo KyiXYll 
In heavy house-to-house fighting in the Citadel, a Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines machine 
gunner, with his assistant close by, fires his M60 machine gun on its tripod at an enemy position. 
Both Marines are laden with bandoliers of ammunition for their weapon. 



mission across the river again today. The air is full of 
gas. . . . We are almost used to it unless it is very heavy. 
We then use our masks." In the Citadel, the 4.2-inch 
CS shells proved more effective than the E— 8 dis- 
pensers. The rounds penetrated the tile roofs of the 
buildings and "concentrated the fiill power of the 
round in the building rather than relying on the infil- 
tration of the CS gas from outside." Enemy prisoners 
testified to the demoralizing effect of the gas on their 
units, although some NVA officers and senior NCOs 
carried gas masks with them into battle." 

After heavy fighting on 17 February, Major 
Thompson called another temporary halt to the 
advance. NVA mortars sank an LCU attempting to 
resupply the battalion in the Citadel. Facing shortages 
in food and ammunition, especially in 106mm rounds 
for the Ontos and 90mm rounds for the tanks, Thomp- 
son rested his exhausted men until the supplies reached 
his battalion. The attack was at a standstill. " 



An exhausted Marine crew member lies on top of his Ontos 
tracked vehicle among its six 1 06mm recoilless rifles. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A 190767 




CHAPTER 12 

The Struggle for Hue — 
The Taking of the Citadel and Aftermath 

The Struggle in the Western Citadel — An Estimate of the Situation and Mounting the Offensive- 
Closing Out Operation Hue City — A Summing Up 



The Struggle in the Western Citadel 

While the American Marine battahon fought for 
the Dong Ba tower and painfully inched its way for- 
ward, the Vietnamese Marine task force also entered 
the battle. Alter several delays, on 13 February, U.S. 
Navy landing craft ferried the command group and 
the remaining companies of the 1st VNMC Battalion 
and the entire 5 th VNMC Battalion from the LCU 
ramp across the Perfume River to the northern land- 
ing site. At his Mang Ca headquarters, the 1st ARVN 
Division commander, General Truong assigned the 
southwest sector of the Citadel, west of the Imperial 
Palace, to the Vietnamese Marine Task Force.* Accord- 
ing to Truong s concept of operations, the following 
morning, the task force would pass through friendly 
forces south of the headquarters and then attack first 
to the west and then make a left turning movement 
with the 1st Battalion on the eastern flank and the 5th 
Battalion on the western.' 

As planned, at 0900 on the 14th, the Vietnamese 
Marines left their line of departure, but both battal- 
ions immediately ran into strong enemy forces. From 
0930—1200, the 5th Battalion engaged in heavy 
house-to-house fighting until it reached its first 
objective. In its sector, the 1st Battalion failed in its 
mission to secure a small school, stubbornly defended 
by the NVA.^ 

According to a South Vietnamese reporter who 
accompanied the 1st Battalion's 4th Company, a Viet- 
namese Marine platoon leader, Third Lieutenant Nhut, 
led his men supported by a tank into a pagoda from 
which to launch the assault on the school. After a sup- 



*For purposes of control, Truong had divided the Citadel into six 
zones or areas of operations: Zone A was the Mang Ca compound; Zone 
B was the area immediately south of the headquarters and under 
friendly control; Zone C was in the northwest sector and given to the 
3d ARVN Regiment; Zone D was the sector of the U.S. 1st Battalion, 
5th Marines; Zone E was the Imperial Palace and grounds still occu- 
pied by enemy forces; and the Vietnamese Marine sector was to be 
2^jne F. Pham Van Son, Tet Offemive, pp. 257-58. 



porting air strike on the enemy positions. Lieutenant 
Nhut suddenly dashed forward toward an abandoned 
house, halfway between the school and the pagoda. 
Enemy automatic fire cut the lieutenant down. The 
company commander shouted over the radio: "I never 
told anyone to charge ahead yet. I told everyone to wait 
. . . ." He then reported to the battalion commander 
"the loss of a 'big child'" [referring to a "comrade in 
arms"}. During a lull in the fighting, a small group of 
Marines recovered Nhut's body and equipment. On 
the helmet was the inscription "Live beside you, dar- 
ling, die beside buddies." The reporter later learned 
that this was the slogan of the 4th Company. During 
the 14th, the 1st Battalion took casualties of 9 dead 
and 24 wounded. Repulsing early morning probes on 
its positions on the 15th, the 1st Battalion counterat- 
tacked and finally captured the schoolhouse that after- 
noon. In two days of heavy fighting, the two Marine 
battalions had advanced less than 400 meters.' 

To the north of the Vietnamese Marines, the 3d 
ARVN Infantry Regiment in the northwest sector of 
the Citadel also met with setbacks. On 14 February, 
the enemy forces broke out of their salient west of the 
Tay Loc airfield and cut off the 1st Battalion of the 3d 
Regiment in the western corner of the Citadel. It took 
two days for the ARVN to break the encirclement.-" 

By this time, the enemy also had its problems. On 
the night of 16 February, the ARVN troops at the 
"Alamo" with Lieutenant Wells, monitoring enemy 
radio frequencies, intercepted a transmission ordering 
"an attack of battalion-size reinforcements into the 
Citadel through the 'west gate' and over the moat 
bridge." Wells immediately called upon the Marine 
155mm howitzers at Gia Le and all available Navy 
gunships on station to "'fire for effect' at the on-call tar- 
gets around the gate and bridge." According to the 
Marine lieutenant, the howitzers "and a 5 -inch mount 
from one of the destroyers responded simultaneously 
within three minutes and continued firing tor approx- 
imately 10 minutes. " Lieutenant Wells remembered 
that after approximately 100 rounds, "there was 



204 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



205 



screaming on the radio." The enemy had received a 
direct hit on the moat bridge, kiUing a high-ranking 
(possibly a general) North Vietnamese officer and 
blowing several enemy troops into the water.5* 

About midnight, the ARVN intercepted another 
enemy message from the commander of enemy forces 
inside Hue to his immediate superior. The NYA com- 
mander in Hue announced that his predecessor had 
been killed, that he had assumed command, and that 
"many other men had either been killed or wounded." 
He recommended that his troops be permitted to 
withdraw from the city. The senior officer denied the 
request and "ordered the new cmdr [commander] to 
remain in position and fight."''** 

An Estimate of the Situation and 
Mounting the Offensive 

At the same time, the U.S. command feared a 
buildup of NVA forces in the Hue sector. Earlier on the 
l6th, General Abrams, the MACV (Forward) com- 
mander, had talked to Major General Tolson, of the 1st 
Cavalry Division, and then flew over the Army divi- 
sion's objective area west of the city. According to his 
observations and information, the NVA had at least 
three battalions still in the city: "They are resupplied 
nightly from a base camp 1 8 kilometers west of the 
city, generally through the west gate. They have plen- 
ty of 60mm mortar and B— 40 rocket ammo." More- 
over, allied intelligence now identified a new enemy 
battalion west of the city and a new regimental head- 



* Wells was convinced that the 155mm howitzers hit the bridge 
since the enemy message about the attack "came just after I heard 
arty rounds coming in." Wells, "Excerpts from Combat Report." 

**According to a recent Vietnamese history, the Communist 
Central Party Military Affairs Committee issued instructions that the 
Citadel must be held until 18 February. On the 20th, the local Tri 
Thien Region Parly Committee suggested to the Central Party commit- 
tee that it permit the withdrawal from Hue. The Central Party then 
instructed the Communist military region headquarters to: "Strive to 
hold, you will be supplied, including by air." The Vietnamese 
account then goes on to state "From the night of the 20th through 
the 23d of February IL-14 aircraft of our Air Force flew parachute 
resupply to our forces in Hue. Although the effectiveness was low, 
the resupply by our air force stimulated the fighting morale of our 
troops and people on the battlefield." Tiian Khii No. 4 {Military 
Region 4), Lich Su Khang Chien Chong My Cim Nmc (1954-1975) 
{History of the War of National Salvation Against America (1954-1975)1 
(Peoples Army of Vietnam Publishing House: Hanoi, 1994), pp. 
236-38. The authors are indebted to Mr; Robert J. Destatte of the 
Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, U.S. Depart- 
ment of Defense, for the above translation. The authors know of no 
source that confirms or mentions the Vietnamese claim of an airlift 
to the NVA forces in the Citadel. 



quarters two kilometers north of the city with at least 
one battalion. Abrams radioed General Cushman to 
expect "a renewed attack in the Hue area at any time" 
and that "we must seek every means to reinforce the 3d 
Bde {Brigade} of the 1st Air Cav [Air Cavalry} Div to 
bring additional forces to bear north and west of Hue." 
According to the MACV (Forward) commander, "we 
should make every effort to move against the enemy, 
now, straining our logistic base to the maximum to 
include air supply if required."^ 

Later on the same afternoon at Phu Bai, General 
Abrams hosted a meeting with Vice President Nguyen 
Cao Ky and Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, the 
I Corps Commander. Lieutenant General Cushman, the 
III MAF commander, and Brigadier General LaHue, 
the Task Force X-Ray commander, also attended the 
conference. The MACV Forward staff and General 
LaHue briefed the Vietnamese dignitaries on the Hue 
situation. According to Abrams, Vice President Ky 
stated that his intelligence sources concurred with the 
American assessment of an enemy buildup west of the 
city. Ky voiced the opinion that the North Vietnamese 
were willing to sacrifice "thousands of men to win a 
slight political gain." The South Vietnamese Vice Pres- 
ident declared that the U.S. forces should not allow the 
enemy use of pagodas, churches, and other religious 
symbolic buildings to deter their advance and that he 
would "accept responsibility" for any destruction.** 

The following day. General Westmoreland, the 
MACV commander, met with both Generals Abrams 
and Cushman. Westmoreland concurred with their 
belief that the enemy was about to launch a major 
operation with Hue as its target. He also accepted the 
judgment of both of his field commanders in I Corps 
upon the need for further reinforcements. The Ameri- 
can commanders decided to place under Task Force X- 
Ray the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division 
with two battalions. They also agreed to reinforce the 
3d Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division with two 
more battalions. According to the allied plans, the 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines and the 2d Battalion, 5th 
Marines would continue mopping up in the modern 
city and expand operations to the east and south of 
Hue. The 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne would block 
avenues of retreat to the south and southwest, while the 
3d Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Division pressed the NVA 
from the northwest.'^ 

In the Citadel, itself. General Truong, the ARVN 
1st Division commander, prepared lor the final thrust 
against the entrenched and determined enemy forces. 
He assigned the Vietnamese Marine Tisk Force, now 



206 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



reinforced by a third battalion from Saigon, to clear the 
southwestern wall.* With the Vietnamese Marines on 
the western flank, he placed the 3d ARVN Regiment 
in the center with orders to attack south towards the 
Lmperial Palace. The Vietnamese general placed his 
Reconnaissance Company on the right flank ot Major 
Thompson's 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, which 
renewed its assault in the southeastern sector. 'o 

From the 18th through the 20th, the American 
Marine battalion and South Vietnamese units in the 
Citadel continued to meet dogged resistance firom the 
enemy. If the NVA in the Citadel were now fighting a 
rear guard action, they contested nearly every piece of 
ground. Even with mounting casualties, the North 
Vietnamese continued to throw replacements into the 
fight and their supply lines remained open. During the 
early morning hours of 19 February, two enemy battal- 
ions attacked the South Vietnamese Marines in the 
southwestern sector of the Citadel. Although the 
Marines, supported by artillery, beat back the enemy 
assault, several high-ranking NVA officers and politi- 
cal leaders used the "diversion" to make good their 
escape from the city." 

In the southeastern sector, on 19 February, after 
regrouping, the American Marine battalion resumed 
the offensive. With Companies B, C, and D in the van- 
guard, and Company A still in reserve, the 1st Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines only made nominal advances against 
its stubborn foe, holed up in the rubble, structures, and 
walls of the Citadel. Major Thompson, the battalion 
commander, later remembered that one particular 
building, "a large, two-storied administrative building 
(the largest in the Citadel)" was of particular concern to 
him. From it, the enemy had excellent observation and 
fields of fire. According to Thompson, he "telt that if 
we could take this position, the rest would be easy." By 
the 20th, however, Thompson believed that most of 
the companies had run out of steam and that some new 
approach was needed. '- 



* Colonel Talman C. Budd II, then Major Budd and advisor ro rhe 
Vietnamese Marine Task Force, remarked that Major Thong, the Viet- 
namese Marine Task Force commander, maintained his command post 
with his 1st Battalion commander, since they were close friends. 
According to Budd, he did so because Colonel Yew, "the ceremonial 
Asst. Commandant, was sent up to Hue to oversee the TF 'A' opera- 
tions." The Task Force Commander "resented that Col Yew had been 
sent up to Hue so rather than locating the TF CP [Command Post] in 
the vicinity of the 1st ARVN Division where Colonel Yew was . . . [he] 
chose to move his CP forward with his old friend the 1st Battalion 
commander to keep Colonel Yew out of his hair." Col Talman C. Budd 
JI, Comments on draft, dtd 30Mar95 (Vietnam Comment File), here- 
after Budd Comments. 




Photo is from the Abel Collection 
Walter Cronkite. the CBS Evening News anchorman, is 
filmed covering Marine operations in Hue. The battle for 
Hue provided dramatic footage for the TV cameras which 
Americans at home could vieiv almost the next day. 

At Phu Bai and Da Nang, both Generals Abrams 
and Cushman shared Major Thompson's concern 
about progress in the Citadel and American casual- 
ties. News correspondents with the Marines in the 
old city filed dispatches and film about the intensity 
of the fighting in the old city that American audi- 
ences viewed and read almost the next day." One 
dramatic picture showed a Marine tank with a 
makeshift litter on its rear, carrying wounded from 
the 1st Battalion, 5 th Marines back to the battalion 
aid station. Reporter Lee Lescaze wrote an article 
entitled "Shortage of Men, Air Support Slows Marine 
Drive in Hue" that, on 19 February 1968, appeared 
on page 1 of the Washington Post. According to 
Lescaze's account, the battalion had only advanced 
four blocks and still were two blocks from the south- 
ern wall of the Citadel. He quoted Marine company 
officers asking "when are they going to get help." 
Lescaze described the lead companies "trying to keep 
on line as they maneuver through buildings and rub- 
ble of Hue." In some instances, corporals were acting 



**Two of the news correspondents, Alvin B. Webb, Jr., of the 
United Press and H. D. S. Greenway of Time Magazine, were wounded 
when they and Charles Mohr of the Neu' Yorli Times pulled a wounded 
Marine to safety in the Citadel. Braestrup, Big Story, I, p. 238. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



207 



platoon leaders taking the place of wounded or dead 
company officers. One officer remarked, "We don't 
have enough men, enough air support, or enough 
artillery to do this thing quickly . . . .""* 

On 20 February, General Abrams radioed General 
Cushman that he recognized the efforts of everyone "to 
reduce the siege of Hue and that the weather has had 
considerable impact." Abrams, nevertheless, consid- 
ered "the measures so far taken to be inadequate and 
not in consonance with the urgency of the problem or 
the resources you command." The Army general con- 
sidered it "essential that we bring to bear every avail- 
able means at our disposal in firepower and support to 
eliminate the enemy forces in Hue." He directed 
Cushman to give priority on artillery fires to both the 
ARVN and Marine units in the city. Abrams declared 
that General Truong should coordinate "all outside 
support rendered and we should be responsive to his 
requests." He told Cushman: "In accomplishing all 
the above, I direct that the resources owned by the 
U.S. be unstintingly committed to the support of the 
Vietnamese forces of all types cutting out all the red 
tape and administrative procedures that in any way 
hinder the conduct of the battle." According to 
Abrams, "this is one battle and anything anyone has 
that is usefiil should be committed to its early and 
final conclusion."!''** 

At the same time he radioed Cushman, General 
Abrams also sent a message to General Tolson of the 
1st Air Cavalry Division. He told Tolson: "You have a 
priority task to clear the northwest, west and southern 
approaches to Hue within the next 48 hours, using all 
resources at your disposal . . . ." Abrams then ordered 
General Tolson to "make personal contact with BG 



*The 1st Marine Division responded to obvious concern by high- 
er headquarters. Although not disputing the accuracy of Lescaze's arti- 
cle, a division message stated that of the 10 platoons of the battalion 
in the Citadel, three were commanded by lieutenants, one by a gun- 
nery sergeant, two by staff sergeants, two by sergeants, and two by cor- 
porals. In its message, the division observed that weather permitted 
fixed-wmg support only on three days, 14-16 February 1968. Because 
of the need for accuracy, the division stated it used only 8-inch how- 
itzer and naval gunfire in support of the battalion. It admitted that 
"1/5 casualties have been high. During past week, priority of person- 
nel replacement has been given to the 5th Marines." 1st MarDiv msg 
to CGFMFPac, dtd 21Feb68, End 14, 1st MarDiv ComdC, Feb68. 

** Brigadier General Paul G. Graham, who as a colonel served as 
the G-3 or operations officer of the 1st Marine Division, believed that 
this message, "was simply a case of a frustrated Abrams trying to direct 
one of his subordinate commanders to hurry the Hue campaign which 
would relieve him of some political stress caused by the Hue attack." 
BGen Paul G. Graham, Comments on draft, dtd 20Nov94 (Vietnam 
Comment File), hereafter Graham Comments. 



Truong . . ., assess the situation within the city . . . and 
report personally to this headquarters with your pro- 
posed plan of action." The MACV (Forward) comman- 
der then promised Tolson that he would issue the "nec- 
essary orders" to General Cushman "to insure that all 
available resources are placed at your disposal to accom- 
plish this mission. "'5 

Despite the note of anxiety in Abrams' messages, the 
battle for Hue was in its last stages. On 20 February, 
reenforced by the 2d Battalion, 501st Infantry and the 
1st Battalion, 7th Infantry, the 1st Cavalry's 3d Brigade, 
now four battalions strong, prepared to clear the Que 
Chu area. With clearing weather and both air and 
artillery support, the 3d Brigade advanced against stub- 
born enemy forces, who fell back towards Hue. By the 
end of 22 February, the Brigade was within 2,500 
meters of the city walls. In the two days of the attack, 
the U.S. troops had killed more than 120 of the enemy. 
The brigade was about to close the western approaches 
to Hue, cutting the enemy supply route into the city. 
On the previous day, U.S. Army Brigadier General 
Oscar E. Davis, the assistant division commander of the 
1st Cavalry, had become the coordinator of supporting 
arms fire in the Citadel with his headquarters collocat- 
ed with General Truong at the Mang Ca compound. "^ 

In the Citadel, Major Thompson had decided on 
another tack to get his battalion moving again. On the 
afternoon of the 20th, he held a conference with his 
company commanders. Thompson stated that "to con- 
tinue the attack as before would be sheer folly" and 
suggested the possibility of a night attack. According 
to Thompson, most of the company commanders 
"were not very enthusiastic . . . they were willing to try, 
but I could see that their hearts were not in it." He 
understood their reluctance, "they had endured a great 
deal during the past two weeks." On the other hand, a 
few days earlier, he had given his reserve company, 
Company A, to First Lieutenant Patrick D. Polk. In a 
brief period, Polk had revived the morale of the com- 
pany, which had taken horrendous casualties on the 
first day of action in the Citadel. Thompson believed 
that "Pat Polk and Company A were ready to go." 
According to the plan, a platoon from Company A was 
to seize three key facilities, including the two-story 
administrative building, flanking the North Viet- 
namese positions during the night. At first light, the 
rest of the battalion was to launch the general attack.'" 

As planned, the 2d Platoon, Company A, led by 
Staff Sergeant James Munroe, moved out at 0300 on 
the 21st Irom the company perimeter. Divided into 
three approximately 10-man teams, the Marines cap- 



208 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371416 
Marines of Company L, 5d Battalion, 3th Marines use walls and the sides of houses to cover their 
advance on a key North Vietnamese position in bitter street fighting in the Citadel. On 21 February, 
the company reinforced the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, relieving the 1st Battalion's Company B. 



tured all three buildings with only minimum resis- 
tance by the enemy. Major Thompson later speculated 
that the North Vietnamese withdrew from the build- 
ings during the night to sleep elsewhere. In the morn- 
ing about daybreak, the enemy troops started to move 
back, providing "a turkey shoot" for the Marines of 
Company A. According to one of the Marine enlisted 
men, "Hell, the first thing in the morning we saw six 
NVA . . . just standing on the wall. We dusted them 
all off." According to Major Thompson, "this threw 
the NVA into utter confijsion and . . . gave our other 
companies the spirit they needed to continue the attack 
with zest." Despite the initial success, the North Viet- 
namese "defended the ground within the zone of action 
with tenacity." By the end of the day, the battalion had 
killed about 16 North Vietnamese, taken 1 prisoner, 
and captured 5 individual weapons at a cost of 3 dead 
and 14 wounded Marines. The battalion was still about 
100 yards short of the southeastern wall."* 

The end, however, was in sight. On the 21st, Com- 
pany L, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines had relieved Compa- 
ny B, which received a well-earned rest. The following 
morning, the 1st Battalion prepared for the final assault 
on the southern wall. Lieutenant Polk carefially briefed 
Company A, which this time was to be in the vanguard 



of the attack. At 0930, the Marines once more pushed 
forward. Except for some scattered snipers and an occa- 
sional mortar round, the enemy seemingly had melted 
away. Upon reaching the southeastern wall of the 
Citadel, Lance Corporal James Avella took out a small 
American flag from his pack and fastened it to "a sag- 
ging telegraph pole." The battalion's after-action report 
documented this event with the phrase, an "element" of 
Company A "hoisted our National Ensign." 

Upon the securing of the wall. Major Thompson 
ordered the new company under his command, 
Company L, to capture the southern gate and the 
immediate area outside the Citadel leading to the 
bridge across the river. The company commander. 
Captain John D. Niotis, made his preparations for 
the assault. Major Thompson set up his temporary 
command post in a building about 300 meters from 
the objective so that he could witness the attack. 
Thompson recalled it was "a classic combined arms 
effort that could not have been executed better on a 
blackboard." The sun was out for the first time in 
two weeks and Marine fixed-wing aircraft dropped 
napalm within 800 meters of the advancing troops. 
A M48 tank provided suppressive fire to the compa- 
ny's rear at enemy positions on the palace wall. At 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



209 




Top IS Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A801236 and bottom photo is courtesy of Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) 
Top, on 24 February, South Vietnamese soldiers from the 212th Company. 3d ARVN Regiment raise 
the South Vietnamese flag over the Citadel. Below, Major William P. Eshelman, the senior advisor 
to the 4th Vietnamese Marine Battalion, is seen at the CP of the 4th Battalion along the West Wall 
with Vietnamese Marines. 




210 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



one time, the tank turned around and trained its 
90mni main gun directly at the building occupied 
by Thompson and his command group. The tank 
fired but according to the battalion commander "the 
round hit a stone archway between us and exploded." 
Again, the tank opened fire, raking the building 
with its .50-caliber machine gun, but Thompson's 
operations officer "had the presence of mind to get 
on the radio and get the tank fiom firing at us." 
Major Thompson later related that the tank com- 
mander, the tank platoon sergeant, "was very embar- 
rassed about taking his battalion commander under 
fire." Without any other major incidents but sus- 
taining casualties of 3 dead and 30 wounded during 
the day, by 1800, the Marine battalion succeeded in 
attaining all of its objectives. According to the bat- 
talion's report, "enemy contact . . . was lighter than 
any previous offensive day." One Marine observed, 
"Hey it's 'Washington's birthday."'"' 

To the west oi: the American Marines, however, the 
North Vietnamese continued to fight for nearly every 
inch of the old city still in their hands. In the 'Viet- 
namese Marine sector on the 2 2d, the enemy fired 
122mm rockets followed by ground attacks on the 
Marine positions. Although forced back, the North 
Vietnamese maintained the pressure on the Marine 
task force. On the 23d, the Vietnamese Marines "were 
in moderate to heavy contact" throughout the day and 
"no advances were made . . . ." Venting his anger at 
what he considered the slow progress of the Viet- 
namese Marines in a message to General 'Westmore- 
land, General Abrams threatened to recommend to 
the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff the dissolu- 
tion of the Vietnamese Marine Corps. He complained 
to Westmoreland that the Vietnamese Marines in the 
last three days "have moved forward less than half a 
city block," although being the "strongest force in the 
Citadel either Vietnamese, U.S., or enemy."-"* 



* Colonel Talman C. Budd II, a former advisor ro the Vietnamese 
Marine Corps, commented that the criticism of the Vietnamese Marines 
was unjust. He claimed that U.S. commanders were critical without 
understanding the Vietnamese limitations. He remarked that the Viet- 
namese Marines were basically light infantry with their battalions num- 
bering about 400 to 600 men and "were standing toe to toe with the 
same NVA with far less resources than the Marine units had. The VNMC 
had a battery of 105mm howitzers; no tanks, Ontos, or other supporting 
arms." According to Budd, "the battle in the western sector of operations 
was in many respects more difficult and ferocious because the enemy had 
the unrestrained ability to replenish his forces and supplies with impuni- 
ty through the west wall." Budd admitted, "the Vietnamese could have 
been more aggressive under some circumstances but I'm still not sure 
that Hue City was one of those cases." Budd Comments. 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A800450 
A Marine sergeant from the 1st Battalion, 3 th Marines sits 
with his weapon on the throne inside the Imperial Palace. 
The palace was recaptured from the North Vietnamese by 
South Vietnamese forces, not by the U.S. Marine battalion. 

Notwithstanding Abrams' frustrations, both the 3d 
ARVN and the Vietnamese Marines were about to 
close out the chapter on the battle for the Citadel. On 
the 22d, the 3d ARVN Regiment had assisted the 
Vietnamese Marines in quashmg the enemy attack and 
mounted a counterattack spearheaded by the 1st Divi- 
sion's Black Panther Company. AR'VN and American 
artillery, on the night of the 23d, spoiled another NVA 
attempt to break through South Vietnamese defenses 
in the western sector of the Citadel. The 2d Battalion, 
3d ARVN then launched its own surprise attack along 
the southern wall. At 0500 on the 24th, soldiers of the 
ARVN battalion pulled down the Viet Cong banner 
and raised the Republic of Vietnam standard in its 
place on the Citadel flag tower By 1025 on the 24th, 
the 3d ARVN Regiment had reached the southern 
wall and secured it. General Truong then ordered the 
Black Panther Company and the 2d Battalion, 3d 
AR'VN to assault the Imperial Palace. Meeting little 
resistance, the AR'VN troops, by late afternoon, recap- 
tured the palace with its surrounding grounds and 
walls by late afternoon. In the meantime, the Viet- 
namese Marines took the western wall. By nightfall, 
only the southwest corner oi the Citadel remained 
under enemy control. Under cover of darkness at 0300 
on the 25th, the 4th Vietnamese Marine battalion 
launched a surprise attack and eliminated this last 
pocket of North Vietnamese organized resistance in the 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



211 



Citadel. Outside of the eastern wails of the Citadel, a 
two-battalion ARVN Ranger task force cleared the Gia 
Hoi sector, a small enclave located between the Citadel 
and the Perflime River that had been under NVA con- 
trol since 31 January. Save for mopping-up operations, 
the fight for the Citadel was over-' 

For the U.S. 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in the 
Citadel, except for isolated skirmishes, its last signifi- 
cant action occurred on the 22d with the seizure of the 
southeast wall and its approaches. Major Thompson 
had hoped to participate in the taking of the Imperial 
Palace, but as he later ruefiilly observed: "For political 
reasons, I was not allowed to do it. To save face, the 
Vietnamese were to retake the 'Forbidden City' . . . ." 
Marine tanks, Ontos, and recoilless rifles, however, pro- 
vided direct support for the assault on the palace. On 
26 February, ARVN forces relieved the Marine battal- 
ion, which departed the Citadel to join the 2d Battal- 
ion, 5th Marines in a two-battalion sweep east and 
north of the city.-- 

Closing Out Operation Hue City 

For the Marines, the operation, now officially called 
Hue City, lasted about another week. While the 1st 
Battalion, 1st Marines essentially mopped up in south- 
ern Hue,* the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, since 12 Feb- 
ruary, had conducted numerous company and platoon- 
size combat patrols south of the Phu Cam Canal. The 
battalion relieved the 101st ARVN Engineering Com- 
pany that had been surrounded by NVA just southwest 
of the new city. On 24 February, the battalion began a 



* First Lieutenant Ray L. Smith, the acting Company A comman- 
der, recalled that his company on 10 February together "with a militia 
of cooks etc., that they called 'B' Company," returned to the MACV 
compound and "began pushing east." At first, the battalion encoun- 
tered little resistance as it coveted two blocks and reached the soccer 
stadium. Smith remembered that they had a road to cross east of the 
stadium and "we bumped hard again." According to Smith, an ARVN 
major, who had been on leave and hiding from the NVA, joined them 
and informed the Marines that a North Vietnamese battalion head- 
quarters was next door to his house. With clearances obtained from the 
Vietnamese authorities for "unobserved fire ... for the first time," the 
Matine battalion called in supporting artillery and mortar missions. 
The following morning, the Marine infantry "went in" under a CS gas 
cover: "We had some fairly heavy resistance, but we cleared it out eas- 
ily .. . ." Smith remembered, "we found where they had their battal- 
ion headquarters," but the enemy bodies had been cleared out. After 
the taking of the headquartets. Smith wrote that Company A got some 
rest "and were used mostly for security until 'we left." IstLt Ray Smith 
to Capt Gordon D. Batcheller, dtd 25Mar68, End to Col Gordon D. 
Batcheller, Comments on draft, dtd 10Dec94 (Vietnam Comment 
File). Unfortunately, the 1/1 Command Chronology and journal file is 
silent on this incident. 1/1 ComdC, Feb68. 



three-company sweep south of the city in conjunction 
with the two battalions of the 1st Brigade, 101st Air- 
borne Division. Under cover of darkness at 0300, the 
battalion advanced south of the Phu Cam Canal along 
Route 1 and then swung west and easily took its first 
objective around 0500, a piece of high ground 1,000 
meters south of the canal and west of the highway. 
About an hour later. Company F secured its second 
objective, Hill 103, another 1,000 meters south, again 
without meeting any resistance." On Hill 103, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Ernest C. Cheatham, the battalion com- 
mander, established an outpost manned by an artillery 
forward observer team, a forward air controller, and an 
infantry squad from Company F for security. He then 
prepared to advance through a Vietnamese cemetery 
upon his main objective, an ARVN engineer battalion 
compound, about 1,500 meters to the west. The engi- 
neers had held out against repeated VC and NVA 
assaults since the beginning of the month. -^ 

Close to 0700, with Company G on the right. Com- 
pany H on the left, and Company F following in trace, 
the battalion began its attack to secure the ARVN 
compound. Enemy mortars and automatic weapons 
fire forced the Marines to take cover among the tombs. 
After the battalion called in artillery and mortars on 
the suspected enemy positions. Company G, about 
0830, reached the perimeter of the base and tied in 
with the ARVN engineers there. After discussing 
defensive arrangements with the ARVN base com- 
mander, the Company G commander. Captain Charles 
L. Meadows, reported back to Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham about the situation. The company comman- 
der warned Cheatham that the ARVN engineers had 
extensively mined the approaches to their compound 
and that a guide was required to pass through safely. 



** Brigadier General Michael P. Downs, who as a captain com- 
manded Company F, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, recalled that on the 
24th, his company passed the remains of a Marine convoy that had 
been ambushed earlier in the month in an attempt to bring supplies to 
an isolated Matine artillery battery located at the Rock Quarry across 
the Perfume River from Phu Bai. Two men from his company who had 
been wounded and trying to rejoin the company were among the casu- 
alties: "It was a demoralizing site." BGen Michael P. Downs, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 19Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter 
Downs Comments. Colonel Robert C. V. Hughes, who had command- 
ed the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, recalled the same convoys. He 
wrote: "All the vehicles were disabled and remained at the ambush site 
until control was reestablished later in the month." According to 
Hughes, the Marine artillery battery was not attacked during the 
entire period and occasionally initiated counter battery fire on enemy 
rocket launching sites in the Phu Bai sector. Col Robert C. V. Hugh- 
es, Comments on draft, n.d. [19951 (Vietnam Comment FileV 



212 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




2/5 AREA OF OPERATIONS 
24-27-FEBRUARY 1968 



400 
J 



Despite all precautions, the Navy corpsman with 
Cheatham's command group triggered a mine and was 
seriously wounded. ^^ 

Throughout the remainder of the day, the Marine 
companies in their defensive positions in the com- 
pound and around the perimeter came under mortar 
and automatic fire from a VC-held Buddhist temple to 
the immediate south and a ridgeline to the west, over- 
looking the ARVN base. Cheatham observed that the 
Communist gunners had preregistered their mortars 
and automatic weapons fire on the key Marine defen- 
sive positions and terrain objectives. Deciding upon 
much the same tactics as he had already employed, the 
battalion commander planned upon enveloping the 
enemy's positions under cover of darkness and coming 
upon him in the morning. -5 

The enemy, however, was not taken in by the 
Marine stratagem. Companies F and G moved out of 
the perimeter as planned and then waited for artillery 
and airstrikes to soften the enemy defenses. At 0700 on 
the 25th, the two companies launched their attacks to 
take the ridgeline and were met by mortar salvos and 
continuous and accurate automatic weapons fire. As 
one Marine infantryman with Company G observed, 
"everyplace we'd go they would mortar us." With sup- 
porting artillery fires, naval gunfire, and close air sup- 
port, the Marine infantry finally reached the crest of the 
eastern portion of the ridgeline. In their efforts during 
the day, the two companies sustained casualties of 1 



Marine killed and 1 1 wounded. The Marines, in turn, 
killed three of the enemy and took one prisoner. In the 
meantime. Company H, which had cleared out a ham- 
let in support of the Army airborne brigade operating 
to the south of the Marines, joined the other companies 
on the eastern ridgeline.-^ 

On the morning of the 26th, the Marine battalion 
continued the attack to clear the ridgeline. In scat- 
tered skirmishes. Companies F and G on the ridgeline 
killed about 20 NVA and took casualties of 2 Marine 
dead and 13 wounded. About 500 meters to the 
north. Company H, supported by air and artillery, 
maneuvered to take the last hill on the ridgeline, 
where the enemy remained entrenched in fixed posi- 
tions. About 1330, enemy defenders, using mortars, 
machine guns, and 57mm recoilless rifles, forced 
Company H to pull back and call for an air strike. In 
the fighting, the Marines sustained casualties of one 
dead and five wounded and later counted six North 
Vietnamese bodies. 2" 

Resuming the attack after the air strike, Compa- 
ny H once more pushed forward. Again, the Com- 
munist troops doggedly resisted the Marine advance. 
About 1620, once more unable to make any further 
headway, the Marine company called upon air to take 
out the enemy defenses. Two flights of A-4 Sky- 
hawks came in low and dropped their ordnance. 
Although the bombs knocked out two enemy mor- 
tars and two machine guns, killing about 20 North 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



213 



Vietnamese troops, one fell short and burst near the 
Marines, killing four and wounding two. With dark- 
ness coming on. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham 
recalled the company and waited for the next morn- 
ing to renew the assault. 

On the morning of the 27th, Marine air and 
artillery bombarded the enemy defenses. After the last 
fires had lifted, all three companies of the 2d Battalion 
rushed forward. Reaching the crest of the hill without 
encountering opposition, the Marines discovered that 
the enemy had departed during the night. Strewn 
around the hillscape were 14 enemy bodies. The 
Marine battalion then completed its sweep south of the 
new city the next day and prepared for a joint operation 
with the 1st Battalion, 5 th Marines to the east and 
north of Hue. 

Leaving the southern sector to the 1st Brigade, 
101st Airborne on the 29th, the two Marine battal- 
ions entered their new area of operations to cut off any 
NVA forces trying to make their way from Hue to the 
coast. Although encountering few enemy forces, the 
two battalions uncovered "fresh trench work along the 
route of advance, 3,000 meters long with 600 fight- 
ing holes." Captain Michael P. Downs, the Company 
F commander, remembered a trench complex that 
"traveled in excess of five miles" with overhead cover 
every 1 5 meters. As Downs remarked, "that had to be 
a way to get significant reinforcements into the city." 
The search for significant North Vietnamese forces 
proved fruitless. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham 
observed, "we couldn't close it [the loop around the 
enemy}. To be honest, we didn't have enough people 
to close it." On 2 March 1968, the Marines closed out 
Operation Hue City.^s 

A Summing Up 

The battle cost all sides dearly. Marine units of Task 
Force X-Ray sustained casualties of 142 dead and close 
to 1,100 wounded.' U.S. advisors with the 1st ARVN 
Division in Hue reported 333 South Vietnamese Army 



*The breakdown of casualties among the Marine infantry battal- 
ions are as follows: The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines sustained 67 dead 
and 403 wounded. The incomplete 2d Battalion, 5th Marines after- 
action report does not show total Marine casualties, but the battalion's 
command chronology for February shows 65 Marines killed and 421 
wounded. It can be assumed that over 90 percent of these casualties 
occurred during the Hue City fighting. The- 1st Battalion, 1st Marines 
did not submit an after-action report for Hue, but its command 
chronology for February reflects 17 dead and 154 wounded. Again it 
can be assumed that the bulk of the casualties occurred in the Hue City 
fighting. 1/5 AAR Hue City; 2/5 ComdC, Feb68; 1/1 ComdC, Feb68. 



troops killed, 1,773 wounded, and 30 missing in 
action. According to the U.S. Marine advisors with the 
Vietnamese Marine task force in Hue, the Vietnamese 
Marines suffered 88 killed, 350 wounded, and 1 miss- 
ing in action. The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 
listed casualties of 68 killed and 453 wounded for their 
part in the battle while the 1st Brigade, 101st Air- 
borne showed 6 dead and 56 wounded in its battle 
account. Thus, all told, allied unit casualties totaled 
more than 600 dead and nearly 3,800 wounded and 
missing. Obviously the enemy did not escape 
unscathed. Allied estimates of NVA and VC dead 
ranged from 2,500 to 5,000 troops. According to the 
South Vietnamese, captured Communist documents 
admitted to 1 ,042 killed and an undisclosed number of 
wounded. -9 

Just as speculative were the size and number of 
units that the allies engaged in the one month battle. 
The allied command, however, knew that the enemy 
was in Hue in force. South Vietnamese and U.S. intel- 
ligence officers initially identified at least three North 
Vietnamese regimental headquarters controlling sub- 
ordinate units during the early fighting. These were 
the 4th, 5th, and 6th NVA Regiments. Later, American 
and South Vietnamese units confirmed battalions from 
at least three more NVA regiments — the 29th from the 
523C NVA Division and the 90th and 803d from the 
524B Division. The 1st Air Cavalry Division reported 
prisoners from yet another regiment, the 24th Regiment, 
304th NVA Division. Allied intelligence estimated that 
from 16 to 18 enemy battalions took part in the battle 
for Hue in one form or another, not including VC local 
force units. It would be a safe bet that from 8,000 to 
11,000 enemy troops participated in the fighting for 
Hue in the city itself or the approaches to the former 
imperial capital.'"' 

Until the battle for Hue, the allied order of battle 
estimates carried the battalions from the 29th and the 
90th NVA as part of the besieging force at Khe Sanh, 
approximately 45 miles to the northwest. The 803d 
Regijiient was supposed to be in the eastern DMZ, 
another 45 miles to the north. One prisoner from the 
803d, captured on 23 February by Vietnamese 
Marines, told his captors that his unit on the night of 
21—22 February made a forced march from Gio Linh 
District to the Citadel. Although wounded himself, he 
spoke ol the high morale and fairly low casualties in his 
unit. On the 23d, he stated that his unit received 
orders to withdraw, but did not know why. In the hasty 
departure, he lost his way and ran into the South Viet- 
namese troops.'' 



214 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Photo courtesy of Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) 
The South Vietnamese Marine Task Force Alpha commander, the officer on the right holding a map. 
confers with officers of the 1st Vietnamese Marine Battalion west of the city, after leaving Hue. 



The allies remained unsure about the North Viet- 
namese command and control for the battle of Hue. 
U.S. after action reports referred to a division-size 
force, but never identified any particular enemy divi- 
sion headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel Pham Van 
Khoa, the South Vietnamese Thua Thien Province 
chief, who remained in hiding until rescued by Amer- 
ican Marines,* accidentally overheard a conversation 
among some enemy officers. According to PGioa, the 
North Vietnamese mentioned a division taking part in 
the battle and the division headquarters was "in an 
unknown location south of the city of Hue inside a 
pagoda." Khoa could not remember the number of the 
division, but recalled that it ended with a 4. In all 
probability, however, Khoa confused the division 
headquarters with the 4th NVA Regiment. Given the 
disparity of so many regiments from so many different 
divisions, allied intelligence officers believed that a 
forward headquarters of the Tri-Thien-Hue Front under 
a North Vietnamese general officer directed the NVA 
Hue offensive." 

Given both the resources that the North Viet- 
namese put into the battle and the tenacity with which 
they fought, it was obvious that the Hue campaign was 



*See Chapter 10. 



a major component of the entire Tet offensive. Accord- 
ing to an enemy account, the North Vietnamese mili- 
tary command in planning the offensive took into con- 
sideration that the U.S. and South Vietnamese had 
concentrated their forces in the north, expecting an 
attack along Route 9. It viewed Hue a weak link in the 
allied defenses in the northern two provinces. As the 
North Vietnamese author wrote: "The enemy knew 
nothing of our strategy; by the time our forces 
approached the city of Hue, the enemy still had not 
taken any specific defensive measures."^^ 

Once in Hue, the North Vietnamese were there to 
stay. The Communists established their own civil gov- 
ernment and their cadres rounded up known govern- 
ment officials, sympathizers, and foreigners including 
American civilians and military personnel in the parts 
of the city they controlled. After the recapture of Hue, 
South Vietnamese authorities exhumed some 3,000 
bodies thrown into hastily dug graves. In all probabil- 
ity, these were the victims of the Communist 
roundups. Although the North Vietnamese admitted 
the tracking down and punishing of "hoodlum ring- 
leaders," they claimed most of the reported civilian 
deaths were the result of happenstance, exaggerations 
by the South Vietnamese, or caused by the allies. The 
true sufi^erers in the battle were the people of Hue. 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



215 




Top IS Department of Defense (USMC) Photo Aly()381 and bottom photo is courtesy ot Col Talman C. Budd II, USM(, (Ret) 
At top, a bound North Vietnamese prisoners captured in the fighting for Hue are waiting to board the 
Army "Huey" helicopter in the background for evacuation and later interrogation. In bottom photo, a 
South Vietnamese Marine colonel, the Assistant Commandant of the Vietnamese Marine Corps, briefs 
the press on the battle for Hue and prisoners captured by the South Vietnamese Marines. 




216 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Some estimates held that over 80 percent of the struc- 
tures in the city sustained damage or were destroyed. 
Out of a population of about 140,000, more than 
116,000 people were homeless and 5,800 were either 
dead or missing. According to most reports. Hue was 
a devastated city. 34* 

From the allied perspective, the struggle for Hue 
was a near thing, especially in the first few days. Only 
the failure of the North Vietnamese to overrun the 
Mang Ca and MACV compounds permitted the allies 
to retain a toehold in both the Citadel and the new city. 
With the holding of these two positions, the Ameri- 
cans and South Vietnamese were able to bring in rein- 
forcements to mount a counterofifensive. The battalion 
commander of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Marcus J. Gravel, observed that the 
enemy had oriented his defenses to fend off forces com- 
ing into the city: "When we got in and were able to 
stay in there in strength ... we fought him from the 
inside out." Even then, if the enemy had blown the An 
Cuu Bridge across Route 1 on the first day, the Marines 
would not have been able to bring in their initial bat- 
talions and supplies into the city. 55 

Fortuitously for both the Americans and the South 
Vietnamese, the 1st Air Cavalry Division had arrived 
in northern I Corps before Tet and was in position to 
commit eventually a four-battalion brigade to the bat- 
tle. Overcoming strong enemy opposition, including 
elements of three separate regiments, on 25 February, 
the 3d Brigade reached the walls of the Citadel, closing 
out the enemy avenues of approach to the city from the 
west. By this time, the American and South Viet- 
namese forces had overwhelming superiority and the 
North Vietnamese units, fighting a rear guard action. 



* Former Washington Post reporter Peter Braestrup, an eyewitness to 
the battle, cautioned in his book against overdtamatic comparisons that 
appeared in the media of the Hue battle with World War II battles. 
According to Braestrup, "to the uninitiated or imaginative observer on 
the ground, it [Hue] suggested Seoul or Stalingrad. . . . Actually Hue 
got off fairly lightly by World War II or Korean War standards for 
three-week urban battles." Braestrup, Big Story, vol. 1, p. 202. For con- 
trasting views of the Hue "massacres," see Douglas Pike, "Viet Cong 
Strategy, New Face of Terror," and D. Gareth Porter, "The 1968 Hue 
Massacre" in Hue Tet Folder, A&S Files, Indochina Archives. William 
D. Ehrhart a former Marine who served with the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines in Hue and has written extensively on the Vietnam experience, 
commented that he personally saw a lot of dead civilians, killed not by 
intent, "but only because they were in the midst of some of the fiercest 
fighting of the war." While admitting he did not know "what actually 
happened," Ehrhart believes "there is more room for doubt than your 
account (and most others suggest)." William D. Ehrhart, Comments on 
draft, dtd 23Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File), The authors of this work 
feel no need to change the description in the text. 



abandoned the struggle to hold on to the city. Major 
General Tolson, the 1st Cavalry commander, remem- 
bered that General Truong told him that if "I could 
ever get the Cav to the walls of Hue, the enemy would 
'bug out.'" The problem was that it took 22 days for 
the 3d Brigade to fight its way there. Major Talman C. 
Budd II, the U.S. Marine advisor to the Vietnamese 
Marine Task Force, later wrote that if the 1st Cavalry 
had been reinforced or replaced "to enable sealing off 
the west wall sooner, . . .[it] would have shortened the 
struggle to reach the south wall. "56 

Although the Viet Cong and the North Viet- 
namese harassed ship traffic in the Perfume River 
and the other water routes into the city, they made 
no serious attempt to close the waterways. Even with 
the An Cuu Bridge closed for over a week, the 
Marines had stockpiled and brought in enough sup- 
plies by LCU to support operations in both the 
Citadel and southern Hue. By 14 February, with a 
pontoon bridge in place over the canal, the road net- 
work into the new city, at least, was once more open. 
On two occasions, nevertheless, because the NVA 
sank one LCU and temporarily shut down the boat 
traffic on the Perfiime River, Major Thompson in the 
Citadel stopped his battalion's advance because of a 
shortage of 1 06mm and 90mm rounds for his recoil- 
less rifles and tanks. J^ If the enemy had made a 
stronger effort to cut both the water and land lines of 
communications, the outcome of the struggle for 
Hue would have been less predictable. 

Despite marginal flying conditions that curtailed 
resupply missions and the haphazard attempts of the 
enemy to cut the lines of communications, the 
Marines eventually built up their logistic facilities in 
Hue. Marine helicopters eventually lifted more than 
500 tons of all types of supplies into Hue while five 
Navy LCUs brought in another 400 tons. After the 
opening of Route 1 on 12 February, Marine trucks 
from Company B, 7th Motor Transportation Battalion 
carried the bulk of the resupplies into the city. More 
than 1 00 truck convoys made the round trip from Phu 
Bai to Hue. 58 

The 1st Marines first established its logistic support 
area (LSA) in the city next to the LCU ramp. Because 
of the LSA's exposure to enemy mortar fire and snipers, 
the Marines moved it to a South Vietnamese govern- 
ment complex next to the MACV compound. With 
the stockpiling of supplies resulting in a premium for 
space, the 1st Marines then relocated the LSA to the Tu 
Do Soccer Stadium several blocks to the east of the 
MACV buildings. On 22 February, Force Logistic Sup- 



THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OE THE CITADEL AND AETERMATH 



217 




Top is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190503 and bottom photo is couttesy of Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) 
The fighting for Hue caused extensive damage in the city. Top, the ruins of the Hue market place can 
be seen, while below is a view of the south wall of the Citadel taken from the west wall. The devas- 
tation upon the homes and buildings in between the two walls is obvious. 




218 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



'-'VjP*^ 




Top photo is courtesy ot Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) and bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A190492 
After the destruction of the bridges Marines depended upon river traffic ftjr resupply. At top is an 
aerial view of the river after the battle with several damaged river craft. The picture was taken from 
a helicopter whose machine gun can be seen in the forefront. Below. Marine infantry have Ml 6 rifles 
and M60 machine guns at the ready to return enemy sniper or harassing fires from on board a LCM 
(landing craft. ?nechanized) carry ins, 105mm ammunition. 




THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



219 



port Group (FLSG) Alpha took over from the 1st 
Marines the running of the LSA. 

In his after-action report, General LaHue, the Task 
Force X-Ray commander, observed that his command 
made few if any logistic innovations, but implemented 
some procedures "which were necessary and effective." 
According to LaHue, these usually "involved force 
feeding and preplanning." Because of the nature of the 
fighting, the 1st Marines and the committed battalions 
found it almost impossible to anticipate their needs in 
advance. The result was that their "requests escalated 
quickly from routine, to priority, to emergency." Based 
on the experience of the first four days of combat, Task 
Force X-Ray then prestaged a "balanced package of 
usually needed supplies. As soon as higher priority 
cargo was delivered, these would then be delivered 
without a request." The Task Force commander credit- 
ed the logistic support with enabling the infantry bat- 
talions to clear the city.^'' 

With the low ceilings limiting the number of heli- 
copter flights, medical support and evacuation also 
operated under different and more difficult circum- 
stances. It soon became apparent to the 1st Marines for 
the need of forward medical facilities. Colonel Hughes 
established the regimental aid station at the MACV 
compound with eight doctors. The regimental facility 
provided "definitive" emergency care and control and 
coordination of all medical evacuation. It also served as 
a battalion aid station for the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines. The other two battalions, the 1st Battalion 
and 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, each had its own aid 
station. Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham, the 2d Battal- 
ion commander, declared that medical evacuation was 
"a throwback to World War II. [I] Had my doctor . . . 
one block behind the frontline treating the people 
right there."*' 

The Marines used trucks, mechanical mules, and 
any available transportation to carry the wounded back 
to the treatment facilities. According to the 1st 
Marines account, it averaged about two to three min- 
utes to bring a wounded man from the battle site to an 
aid station. It took another two to three minutes from 
the aid station to the helicopter landing zone for fur- 
ther evacuation if required. Eventually, the regimental 
surgeon established two categories of wounded to be 
evacuated by helicopter — Class I, emergency medevac, 
weather permitting; and Class II, immediate evacua- 
tion. Army helicopters assisted in Class I while Marine 
helicopters had sole responsibility for the emergency 
Class II, "which they accomplished under severe 
weather conditions, and with great risk to the heli- 



copter crews, often times flying with a 100-foot ceiling 
and visibility."'*! 

On the south side of the Perfume River, only two 
casualties who arrived alive at the forward aid stations 
died. These were two men from the 2d Battalion, 5th 
Marines who died minutes after their arrival, one of 
gunshot wounds (GSW)to the head and the other of a 
wound to the neck with "severance of both carotid 
arteries." Across the river, where the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines was dependant upon air or water evacuation, 
six men died "after emergency care while awaiting 
helicopter evacuation during severely inclement 
weather." The battalion surgeon declared, however, 
that four "would have died regardless of evacuation 
because of the nature of their wounds, and of the 
remaining two it is equivocal whether they could have 
been saved if evacuated quickly." In the Hue City bat- 
tle, like all operations in Vietnam, despite the prob- 
lems with helicopter evacuation, if a Marine reached 
an aid station alive, his chances of survival were close 
to 99 percent. ^-* 

One other problem that the allies faced was popu- 
lation control. With the widespread destruction in the 
city, the estimated 116,000 homeless had to be fed 
and temporarily housed. Much of the population just 
fled the city and took refuge with relatives and friends 
in the surrounding villages. After the initial confu- 
sion, both U.S. and South Vietnamese agencies began 
to set up refugee centers. U.S. Army Major Jack E. 
Walker, a subsector advisor, recalled that his superior 
about a week after the NVA struck told him that he 
was now the "CORDS 'refugee man. " According to 
Walker, he surveyed the situation and discovered that 
he had 5,000 refugees in a Catholic church and anoth- 
er 17,000 at Hue University. Another 40,000 dis- 
placed people were in the Citadel sector. Walker ini- 
tially concerned himself with three tasks: restoring 
city services including water and power; eliminating 
health hazards including burying the dead; and secur- 
ing food. With the assistance of the local Catholic 
hierarchy and American resources and personnel, 
Walker and his people began attacking all of these 
problems. By the end of February, a full-time refugee 
administrator was in place and local government slow- 
ly began to function once more.-i' 



* Brigadier General Michael P. Downs observed rhat the 99 percent 
chance of survival after reaching a battalion aid station was probably 
true after 4 February. He stated he had at least two Marines of his com- 
pany before that date die of wounds after being evacuated to an aid sta- 
tion. Downs Comments. Those two Marines, however, may have been 
the two who died referred to in the text. 



220 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



^1 




Top photo is courtesy of Col Talman C. Budd II, USMC (Ret) and the bottom is Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A372930 
The civilian population of Hue was caught in the middle of the battle. Top, survivors from the house- 
to-house fighting in the Citadel attempt to make themselves as comfortable as possible on a dirt 
embanhnent. apparently in one of the parks of the old city. Below. Marines lead and assist South 
Vietnamese refugees carrying what belongings they can away from the combat area. 




THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



221 



In the first two weeks there was hardly any sem- 
blance of public order. The authors of the South Viet- 
namese official history of Tet wrote: "Thievery and 
looting were widespread. War victims stole from their 
fellow sufferers. All deserted houses were emptied of 
valuables. Robbed victims sought to steal from others." 
At least one Marine battalion commander, Lieutenant 
Colonel Gravel, complained about the "ARVN looting 
behind us."''^ 

More serious, from an American perspective, were 
reports that U.S. Marines were also involved in the 
looting. The Associated Press was supposed to have a 
photograph of an American soldier or Marine carrying 
a large painting under his arm. A Swiss newspaperman 
reported to MACV that he saw "numerous breaches of 
discipline which would not be tolerated in the Swiss 
Army." He claimed that a Marine tried to sell him a 
Longines watch and that he saw other Marines help 
themselves to photographic equipment from a partial- 
ly destroyed store. The newspaper man came across 
another group of Marines near the Royal Palace man- 
ning a strongpoint, and "drinking whiskey, cognac, 
and beer, and cooking chickens." Moreover, he 
observed several Marines "amusing themselves by 
shooting at dogs, cats and chickens." A CORDS offi- 
cial told Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that Marines 
vandalized the offices of the manager and deputy man- 
ager of the Hue power plant, alleging they took as well 
"whiskey, piasters, and dollars. ""'5 

On 26 February, General Westmoreland ordered 
both Generals Abrams and Cushman to give their 
"personal attention" to this potentially explosive issue. 
In turn. General Cushman asked both the command- 
ing generals of Task Force X-Ray, Brigadier General 
LaHue, and the 1st Marine Division, Major General 
Donn J. Robertson, to inform him of all measures 
taken by members of their commands to avoid such 
incidents: "Looting obviously cannot be tolerated, and 
we must insure that every step is taken to prevent it. 
Officers and NCOs must be held responsible for loot- 
ing by their subordinates." For his part. General 
Abrams assigned the MACV (Forward) staff judge 
advocate to begin a formal investigation. At the same 
time. General Robertson sent an attorney from the 1st 
Division legal office, Captain Bernard A. Allen, to Hue 
to assist in the probe.^^ 

On 2 March 1968, General Abrams reported to 
Westmoreland the results of the investigation. He first 
disposed of the question of the Associated Press photo- 
graph. According to the AP Bureau heads in Vietnam, 
they knew of no such picture. They did remember a 



photograph taken before Tet of a 1st Cavalry soldier 
carrying a religious painting of the Virgin Mary in a 
sector south of Da Nang. After interviewing all com- 
manders, newsmen, and CORDS personnel, the inves- 
tigators concluded that "probably some small articles 
were looted by the Marines . . . however, these report- 
ed incidents were in extreme contrast to extensive and 
systematic looting by ARVN troops and civilians." 
Captain Allen learned that ARVN troops employed 
trucks to carry away their booty. Colonel Khoa, the 
Thua Thien Province Chief, had received no formal 
complaints from South Vietnamese citizens against the 
Marines. General Abrams observed: "At this time, 
investigation has failed to produce sufficient evidence 
upon which to base prosecution for any instance of 
looting by U.S. personnel. "^7* 

Abrams generally commended the Marine com- 
manders. He observed that Colonel Hughes of the 1st 
Marines very early took "positive measures to deter 
looting." On 4 February, Hughes told all officers and 
NCOs that "looting and pillage would not be tolerat- 
ed." He directed that battalion and company com- 
manders carry out periodic "shakedowns" of person- 
nel. Many valuables were turned into the regimental 
CP and returned to the rightful owner. Hughes did 
authorize the commandeering and "cannibalization of 
vehicles as it became necessary to transport casual- 
ties."** He also ordered the shooting of dogs, cats, and 
pigs because the animals were "eating bodies, both of 
U.S. and {Vietnamese] . . . which could not be imme- 
diately retrieved because of the tactical situation." 
Lieutenant Colonel Cheatham stated that in the Uni- 
versity his men used blankets and broke windows "to 
avoid fragmentation from incoming rounds." General 
Abrams concluded "Marine commanders appear to 
have taken reasonable measures to prevent looting and 
needless destruction. "^^ 

Obviously in a fluid situation and close-quarter 
street fighting such as Hue, commanders did not have 
absolute control or know all of the activities of their 
men. One Marine lance corporal reported, "anything 
that was of any value we took ... to keep for souvenirs 
and stuff." He mentioned random destruction caused 
by Marines in the University of microscopes and other 



'Brigadier General Paul G. Graham, the former 1st Marine Divi- 
sions Operarions Officer or G-3, commented that looting "was not a 
problem as far as the Division was concerned . . . ." Graham Comments 

** Peter Braesrrup, the former Washington Post reporter comment- 
ed that he remembered reading a sign "Hotel Company Kicks Ass' . . 
. on a seized van, used to haul supplies." Peter Braestrup, Comments 
on draft, n.d. [Dec94-Jan95] (Vietnam Comment File). 



222 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



laboratory equipment. The lance corporal was particu- 
larly amused by the troops seizing stray vehicles such 
as motor scooters, trucks, and even jeeps: "A grunt . . . 
would just jump on it and start riding it around the 
streets . . . that was pretty funny — right in the middle 
of this war riding up and down the streets in motor 
scooters and even a 1964 black Mercedes goes flying 
down the street filled up with a bunch of Marines in 
it." A Navy corpsman with the Marines recorded in his 
diary: "Looting is widespread. The ARVN's wait until 
the Marines secure an area and then move in to loot. 
The Marines do well for themselves also."^' 

Although admitting to the validity of some of these 
accounts, Marine commanders in Hue believed that 
their men acted with general restraint considering all 
the temptations confronting them. Five years later. 
Lieutenant Colonel Gravel recalled, "we took things to 
our use; I wouldn't kid you about that. I saw some 
things and I saw that they were returned." He remem- 
bered: "We used bedding, we used food, we used alco- 



hol that was there; but there was no looting to one's 
own advantage. There were a couple of attempts at it, 
but word got around and I daresay there was damned 
little, if any." In a similar vein. Lieutenant Colonel 
Cheatham and his company commanders made much 
the same case. At the Marine Corps Schools, in July 
1973, Captain Meadows, the Company G commander, 
related: "We did take things for our use . . . blankets, 
food, water. We must have taken every candle in that 
side of the city for illumination for our own use at 
night. These things — you want to call it looting? 
O.K., we looted." Despite some admitted pilfering of 
small items such as watches and money, all of the com- 
pany commanders denied there was any real problem. 
As Captain Meadows concluded: "Your troops don't 
have time to pick up big things to carry them around. 
They have other, more pressing things {to do}."5o 

Some independent accounts supported the con- 
tention of the Marine commanders that their troops 
acted with reasonable forbearance in the city. The 



Marine PFC James M. Jones fro?n Company H, 2d Battalion, 5 th Marines assists a Vietnamese child to climb out of a win- 
dow of her house to escape the house-to-house fighting in the new city. Marines did what they could for the hapless civilian 
population caught up in the fighting. 

Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371127 




THE STRUGGLE FOR HUE— THE TAKING OF THE CITADEL AND AFTERMATH 



223 



Washington Post carried one story describing Marines 
holed up in a residence that obviously belonged to a 
wealthy man. The house contained a fully stocked 
liquor cabinet, furniture, television set, and various 
other furnishings. About 0700, as the Marines sat 
around eating their breakfast of cold C— Rations, the 
owner's servants arrived with a note asking permission 
to remove the household goods. It took four servants 
three round trips to carry out the items. The only 
things that were missing were the beer that the 
Marines had drunk and one broken bottle of Johnny 
Walker whisky. In another report, an American volun- 
teer worker, who had been visiting Vietnamese friends 
in Hue when the offensive erupted, described his res- 
cue by Marines from Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines. His friends provided him with sanctuary in 
their house while the North Vietnamese held the city. 
As the fighting intensified, the 'family heard soldiers 
firing nearby" and hid the American under one of the 
beds. According to the newspaper account, one Marine 
reached the side of the house and shouted: "Are there 
any VC in there?" The volunteer scrambled outside 
and identified himself An unbelieving Captain Fer- 
nandez Jennings, Jr., the company commander, won- 
dered aloud about the Marine asking if there were VC 
inside. When assured that was the case, Jennings mut- 
tered to himself "It's a great war."5i 

The suddenness and the extent of the enemy offen- 
sive in Hue caught both the South Vietnamese and 
American commands offstride. At first underestimat- 
ing the strength of the enemy in Hue, the allies sent 
too few troops to drive the attackers out. Although 
the South Vietnamese and U.S. commands in I Corps 
eventually deployed additional units piecemeal into 
the Citadel and the southern city and inserted the 3d 
Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division to the west, command 
and control and coordination remained a problem 
until the last weeks of the operation. In a sense. Task 
Force X-Ray, the 1st ARVN Division, and the 3d 
Brigade all fought their own battles in isolation from 
one another. Outside of General Cushman of III MAF 
and General Abrams, MACV (Forward), there was 
not even an overall American, let alone single com- 
mander of the Hue campaign. Both Cushman and 



Abrams were at too high a level and distracted by 
Khe Sanh to focus much of their attention, except 
periodically, to the Hue situation. From his head- 
quarters at the Mang Ca compound. General Truong, 
the 1st ARVN Division commander, did control the 
South Vietnamese effort in the Citadel. Major Talman 
C. Budd II, the U.S. Marine advisor to the Viet- 
namese Marine Task Force A, observed, however, that 
the lack of an overall commander resulted in no gen- 
eral battle plan and competition for supporting fires, 
air, and logistic support. A Task Force X-Ray staff 
officer sardonically remarked that by the time Army 
Brigadier General Davis of the 1st Cavalry Division 
became the Hue coordinator, "he didn't have any- 
thing to coordinate, but he had the name." The com- 
mand relationships in northern I Corps under MACV 
(Forward) were tenuous at best. '2* 

With the date approaching for the end of his stay 
at Phu Bai in early March, General Abrams provided 
General Westmoreland his assessment of the enemy 
situation in the north. Abrams was less concerned 
about Khe Sanh, but worried about the NVA using 
the A Shau Valley and Route 547 leading from the 
valley to "turn our flank." He also expressed some 
anxiety about the recent move of the 805d NVA Reg- 
iment into the Hue vicinity. Abrams stated that and 
the "continuing movement of [NVA] replacements to 
coastal plains supports my belief that Hue is the 
objective he [the enemy} would most like to have." 
The MACV [Forward] commander acknowledged, 
however, that the NVA might "settle tor an objective 
of less importance should the opportunity present 
itself" He believed both sides were fighting for time 
and that "both sides require time to overcome man- 
power and logistical deficiencies." In the long run, 
however, he believed that time was on the allied side. 
General Cushman and General Westmoreland con- 
curred in Abrams assessment. All three American 
commanders believed that the recapture of Hue was 
only a lull before the North Vietnamese launched 
another wave of attacks. '' 



*See Chapter 13 for further discussion of command relations in 
northern I Corps. 



PART III 

AFTER TET, 

KHE SANH, 

AND MINI-TET 



CHAPTER 13 

Post-Tet in I Corps 

The Immediate Ramifications of the Tet Offensive — Readjustment in I Corps 

Readjustments in the U.S. I Corps Command Structure — Planning for the Future 

March Operations in the DMZ Sector — March Operations in the Rest of I Corps — Regaining the Initiative 



The Immediate Ramifications of the Tet Offensive 

By the end of February and the beginning of March 
with the securing of the city of Hue, the enemy's coun- 
trywide Tet offensive had about shot its initial bolt. 
According to American estimates, the Communists 
lost about half of their attacking force, more than 
40,000 from an estimated 84,000 men. In I Corps 
alone, from January through March 1968, Lieutenant 
General Robert Cushman, the III MAT Commander, 
later calculated that allied forces killed over 30,000 of 
the enemy, the equivalent of 74 infantry battalions.'* 

The Communist command, itself, admitted to sev- 
eral shortcomings. As early as 1 February 1968, the 
Central Office of South Vietnam, the Viet Cong gov- 
erning body, issued a circular to its subordinate com- 
mands. According to the Communist leadership, "we 
failed to seize a number of primary objectives and to 
completely destroy mobile and defensive units of the 
enemy." The memorandum blamed the Viet Cong mil- 
itary forces for failure "to hold the occupied areas," and, 
moveover, held the political cadre accountable for not 
motivating the "people to stage uprisings and break 
the enemy oppressive control." In Military Region 3, 
which included both Quang Ngai City and Da Nang, 
the Communist headquarters conceded that its troops 
and cadre within the cities were not strong enough to 
assist the main force units outside of the cities. In an 
official history, the Communist author acknowledged 
that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attacking 
units "did not meet the basic requirements that had 
been set forth." Contrary to the enemy expectations, 
the South Vietnamese Army had not disintegrated and 
in many sectors acquitted itself reasonably well, espe- 
cially on the defensive. - 

Still the tenor of the Communist communiques was 
one of defiance. They all claimed the achievement of 



* Cushman 's statistics include figures before and after Tet and. 
therefore, give a somewhat distorted picture of the enemy's Tet casual- 
ties. It, nevertheless, is indicative of the intensity of the fighting in the 
I Corps sector during the Tet period and of the enemy's losses. 



great victories and made references to final victory for 
their cause. At the same time, however, the enemy 
leadership warned their supporters: "Our people's 
struggle has stepped into an extremely tense and fierce 
phase and is developing very rapidly." They no longer 
spoke of a short-term campaign, but that "the General 
Offensive and General Uprising will not last for only a 
few days, but that it is a phase of a general attack 
against the enemy." One phase was over and another 
was to begin.' 

The American military was also examining the 
consequences of the enemy's offensive. While confi- 
dent that Tet was a major military defeat for the Com- 
munists, U.S. commanders were well aware of the cost 
to their side. Allied casualties during the fighting 
totaled in excess of 12,000, with about two-thirds suf- 
fered by the ARVN. The battle of Hue was a near 
thing, especially in the first few days. While expect- 
ing an attack, especially in the north around Khe Sanh 
or possibly the DMZ, General Westmoreland and the 
MACV staff had underestimated the breadth and 
extent of the enemy general offensive. Some 600,000 
civilians were now refugees, about 100,000 in I Corps 
alone. The pacification effort had sustained a major 
setback. In mid-February, Marine Brigadier General 
John R. Chaisson, the director of the MACV Combat 
Operations Center, observed in a letter home, "the 
damage in the cities and to the economy is staggering. 
ARVN will be somewhat less than effective for 
weeks." He then wrote, however, "... there is a gen- 
eral tightening up of everything, and if the guys on 
top don't panic this could be the turning point of the 
war — even though he [the enemy] initiated it for us." 
Chaisson expressed the sentiments of many of the 
MACV commanders including both Generals West- 
moreland and Cushman.* 

In Washington, the Johnson administration also 
began its reevaluation of the Vietnam War in light of 
the enemy offensive. Other factors also clouded the sit- 
uation. On 23 January, North Korean gunboats cap- 
tured the U.S. intelligence ship, USS Pueblo (AGER-2), 



225 



226 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



0«-.xT«. ii ■■!•:}■ ■ 




POST TET 

IN I CORPS 

1968 

10 20 30 40 50 60 
Kilometers ' i 



usMc SOUTH CHINA 

XXX f 



off the Korean coast and took the officers and crew pris- 
oner.* In response, the administration called up 14,000 



*The North Koreans claimed territorial waters off their coast up to 
20 miles, while the U.S. only recognized Korean territorial waters of 3 
miles. According to the official inquiry the Puehio was boarded approx- 
imately 15 miles off the Korean coast. CinCPacFit, Findings of Fact, 
Opinion, etc. of Court of Inquiry, Case of Puehio (AGER-2), n.d., 
Puehio File, Post ljan46 Comd File (OAB, NHD). See also Center of 
Naval History, Comments on draft, dtd Dec94 (Vietnam Comment 
File) and VAdm F,dwin B. Hooper, Mobility. Support, Endurance, A Story 



Navy and Air Force Reserves, so as not to divert any 
active forces from the Southeast Asia battlefield. Contin- 
ued domestic opposition to the war, often led by influen- 
tial members of his own party, also served to distract the 
President's attention. Although forewarned about a pos- 
sible enemy offensive, "it was more massive," than Presi- 
dent Johnson, like Westmoreland, "had anticipated."' 



of Naval Operational Logistics in the Vietnam War, 1965-1968 (Wash- 
ington; Naval Historical Division, 1972), p. 219. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



227 



If possible, the mood in Washington was grim- 
mer than that in Saigon. While the President reject- 
ed proposals by the Joint Chiefs to intensify the air 
war over Haiphong and Hanoi, he was willing to 
rush ground reinforcements, if necessary, to prevent 
the fall of the Marine base at Khe Sanh. On 3 Febru- 
ary, at the behest of the President, the Chairman of 
the Joint Chiefs, General Earle G. Wheeler, asked 
Westmoreland, "if there is any reinforcement or help 
that we can give you." In reply, Westmoreland only 
requested another squadron of C-130 cargo aircraft 
and air-drop equipment. At the same time, West- 
moreland asked his staff to make a study of the long- 
range requirements. At this point, Wheeler rather 
tartly observed that the long-range could wait, "we 
can handle only one major problem at a time." The 
Chairman emphasized that the Joint Chiefs and the 
President were concerned about Westmoreland's 
"immediate requirements stemming from the pre- 
sent situation in Vietnam." In another cable, Wheel- 
er warned the MACV commander: "The United 
States Government is not prepared to accept a defeat 
in South Vietnam. In summary, if you need more 
troops, ask for them."'' 

These exchange of messages between Westmore- 
land and Wheeler developed into a strange colloquy in 
which the Chairman eventually maneuvered West- 
moreland into requesting significant additional forces 
which would require a callup of the Reserves. On 12 
February, at a meeting at the White House, however. 
President Johnson delayed his final decision, but 
approved the immediate deployment of a brigade of 
the U.S. Army 82d Airborne Division and the 27th 
Marines to Vietnam. Both the Army Brigade and the 
Marine regiment were to reinforce General Cushman's 
forces in I Corps.^* 

Readjustment in I Corps 

By the end of February, the reinforcements for I 
Corps were in place or on their way. On 10 and 12 
February, the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, command- 
ed by Lieutenant Colonel John E. Greenwood, at 
Hawaii embarked on board three Navy ships, the USS 
Vancouver (LPD 2), the USS Bexar (APA 237), and the 
Washburn (AKA 108). Originally scheduled to partic- 
ipate in two landing exercises on Okinawa, the newly 
formed BLT received a change of orders while at sea on 
13 February, as a result of the President's decision, to 



* Chapter 27 will go into further detail on the manpower decisions 
of February 1968 and the question about the activation of the Reserves. 



proceed to Da Nang. Between 14 and 21 February, the 
rest of RLT (Regimental Landing Team) 27 deployed 
by sea and air from Camp Pendleton, California to Da 
Nang. U.S. Air Force Military Airlift Command 
planes flew more than 3,300 men of the regiment 
together with 1,196 short tons of their equipment 
from California to Vietnam. By 17 February, the 27th 
Marines headquarters, under Colonel Adolph G. 
Schwenk, Jr., together with those of BLTs 2/27, com- 
manded by Lieutenant Colonel Louis J. Bacher, and 
3/27, under Lieutenant Colonel TuUis J. Woodham, 
Jr., opened their command posts at the Da Nang base. 
The forces arriving as part of RLT 27 also included 
personnel from the artillery battalion, 2d Battalion, 
13th Marines, under the command of Lieutenant 
Colonel Rhys J. Phillips, Jr. On 21 February, the USS 
Thomaston (LSD 28) departed San Diego with the sur- 
face elements of the RLT, some 200 personnel and over 
5,000 tons of equipment for Vietnam. By the end of 
the month, the 1st Battalion had joined the other two 
battalions of the regiment at Da Nang. General Cush- 
man later declared that he had not known the 27th 
Marines was available and that he had not requested 
them, but that they arrived in "response to overall 
requirements set by Westmoreland." As the 1st 
Marine Division assistant division commander and 
Task Force X-Ray commander, Brigadier General Fos- 
ter C. LaHue, remembered, however. III MAF was 
"happy to get them [RLT 27]. "« 

Throughout this period. General Westmoreland 
continued to deploy U.S. Army units north. From 
mid-January through the end of February, MACV 
reinforced III MAF with over 20,000 Army troops in I 
Corps, including support units. The combat forces 
included the 1st Air Cavalry Division headquarters and 
two brigades, two brigades of the 101st Airborne Divi- 
sion, and the 3d Brigade of the 82d Airborne Division, 
which, like the 27th Marines, had just arrived in Viet- 
nam from the United States. First located at Chu Lai in 
Quang Tin Province under the Americal Division, ele- 
ments of the 82d Airborne brigade then joined the 1st 
Marine Division Task Force X-Ray in the Phu Bai 
Vital Area in Thua Thien Province.'^ 

By the end of February, III MAF numbered nearly 
129,000 officers and men, an increase of nearly 12,000 
over the previous month. These figures included over 
82,000 Marines and nearly 45,000 U.S. Army person- 
nel. In Quang Tri Province, encompassing U.S. units at 
Khe Sanh, the DMZ sector, and south of Quang Tri 
City, there were 16 maneuver battalions (infantry, 
amphibian tractor, and tank), 13 Marine and ^ Army. 



228 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Sixteen battalions, 12 Army and 4 Marine, operated in 
Thua Thien Province. Seven Marine battalions, includ- 
ing the 3d Amphibian Tractor battalion, stayed in the 
Da Nang area of operations while five Army battalions 
from the U.S. Army Americal Division continued 
Operation WheelerA)C7allowa in the Nui Loc Son sec- 
tor. Of the remaining eight battalions of the Americal, 
four were at Chu Lai and the rest split between Quang 
Ngai and Due Pho.'o 

With the possible exception of the Khe Sanh sector 
and continuing harassment of Marine positions along 
the eastern DMZ, by the end of the month, the enemy 
tempo of operations throughout I Corps had dimin- 
ished. Even along the DMZ, the intensity of the NVA 
attacks no longer matched those at the beginning of 
February. In fact, the number of ground assaults in 
February actually declined while the NVA confined 
most of its activity to artiller}', rocket, and mortar bom- 
bardment. Taking advantage of the apparent lull in the 
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet offensive, the 
American commanders continued to make adjust- 
ments and to take the fight to the enemy throughout 
the I Corps sector. •' 

In southern I Corps, the Americal Division contin- 
ued with Operation Muscatine in Quang Ngai 
Province. For the most part, the Army units experi- 
enced relatively light contact except for two significant 
clashes with a VC battalion. In the first, on 12 Febru- 
ary, Americal Task Force Barker conducted a combined 
operation with the 2d ARVN Division and engaged in 
a five-hour firefight. The Americal task force reported 
killing 78 of the enemy with the loss of 1 U.S. soldier. 
Eleven days later, on the 23d, Company A, 3d Battal- 
ion, 1st Infantry apparently encountered the same 
enemy unit with almost the same results. The Ameri- 
cans claimed to have killed 68 of the enemy at a. cost of 
the lives of 2 U.S. soldiers. For the entire month, the 
Americal Division in the operation killed over 270 of 
the enemy and sustained casualties of 13 killed and 
124 wounded. The division also reported recovering 
35 individual enemy weapons and accidentally killing 
8 innocent civilians caught in the crossfire between 
American and VC units. '- 

Further north, in the Wheeler/Wallowa area of 
operations, the Americal Division also accounted for a 
significant number of enemy casualties. On 9 February, 
in the Que Son Valley, elements of the division 
engaged a battalion of the 29th NVA Reghmnt. In little 
over seven hours, the American soldiers killed more 
than 200 of the enemy and recovered 53 individual and 
1 3 crew-served weapons. Near the end of the month. 



1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry and a troop of the 7th 
Squadron, 17th Cavalry ran into another fairly large 
Communist unit and accounted for l48 enemy dead 
and recovered 32 individual and 9 crew-served 
weapons. For the month, the Army units in the opera- 
tion sustained casualties of 98 dead and 455 wounded 
while in turn killing nearly 1,200 of the enemy, taking 
24 prisoners, and recovering 274 individual and 37 
crew-served weapons. The division acknowledged that 
92 "innocent civilians" also inadvertently met their 
death as a result of the operation. Despite the two bat- 
talion-sized actions, Operation Wheeler/Wallowa 
mostly involved numerous contacts between American 
and NVAVC small-unit patrols. '=' 

The war in the 1st Marine Division Da Nang area 
of operations, especially after the repulse of the 2d 
ISP^A Division's offensive in the second week of Febru- 
ary, also reverted to a small-unit war. For the Marine 
units in the TAOR it was a period of retrenchment 
and readjustment. By the end of the month, the newly 
arrived 27th Marines took over the sectors formerly 
held by the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines and the 2d Bat- 
talion, 3d Marines. Lieutenant Colonel Bacher, the 
commander of the 2d Battalion, 27th Marines, 
remembered that when he arrived he was met by a 

A Marine combat engineer carefully disarms a booby- 
trapped 105 mm artillery round south of Da Nang. 

Abel Collection 







POST-TET IN I CORPS 



229 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A708081 
Mines and explosive devices were among the greatest dangers to Marines at Da Nang. Tivo members 
of Company C, 1st Battalion, 7 th Marines administer to a fallen comrade who had just tripped a 
"surprise explosive device. " 



lieutenant colonel from III MAF who took him to 
headquarters, "where I was given orders to report to 
the 1st Marine Division." At the same time, "troops 
and equipment of 2/27 were being trucked southwest 
of Da Nang to the CP {command post] of the 3d Bat- 
talion, 5th Marines." After about three or four days, 
the 3d Battalion departed for Phu Bai and "2/27 
assumed the mission and TAOR" of the latter battal- 
ion. The 3d Battalion, 27th Marines relieved the 2d 
Battalion, 3d Marines which also left for Phu Bai. 
Lieutenant Colonel Woodham, the 3d Battalion com- 
mander, recalled that his unit's main responsibility 
was the patrolling of the Rocket Belt.i^ 

The 7th Marines and the Korean Marine Brigade 
remained responsible for the southern and western area 
of operations, including An Hoa. At An Hoa, Colonel 
Ross R. Miner, the 7th Marines commander, later 
remarked that his 3d Battalion there was "barely keep- 
ing its head above water" The enemy had closed the 



land lines of communication and resupply could be 
carried out only by air.i' 

Indicative of the demoralizing characteristic of the 
1st Division war in the Da Nang TAOR, nearly 54 
percent of all division casualties in February were as a 
result of mines and explosive devices. Lieutenant 
Colonel Woodham later observed his area of operations 
contained "the highest saturation of mines and booby 
traps in the history of land warfare. "'** 



*It must be remembered that the percentage figute above relates 
to all 1st Marine Division casualties, not only those at Da Nang. For 
February 1968, the 1st Marine Division suffered a total of 369 KIA 
and 2,400 wounded. Of that total, 142 of the dead and 1,100 of the 
wounded were sustained by TF X-Ray in the battle for Hue City. Mine 
warfare and explosive devices played only a small role in that battle. It 
would be safe to assume then that the percentage ot 1st Marine Divi- 
sion casualties at Da Nang as a result of enemy mines would be even 
higher than the 54 percent quoted above. 1st MarDiv ComdC, Feb68, 
p. 7. See also Chapter 12. 



230 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



With the securing of Hue in late February, Task 
Force X-Ray at Phu Bai prepared to take the offensive 
to open Route 1 between Da Nang and Phu Bai, which 
had been closed since Tet. On 26 February, Colonel 
Robert D. Bohn's 5th Marines began Operation Hous- 
ton in the Phu Loc and Hai Van Pass sectors. To carry 
out the operation, Bohn received the two battalions 
from Da Nang relieved by the 27th Marines, his 3d 
Battalion and the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines.* In addi- 
tion. Brigadier General LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray 
commander, provided the 5th Marines with opera- 
tional control over three U.S. Army battalions, the 1st 
and 3d Battalions, 327th Infantry and the 2d Battal- 
ion, 502d Infantry.'^ 

While the infantry provided security in Operation 
Houston, Seabees, Marine engineers, and the U.S. 
Army 35th Engineer Battalion worked on the repairs 
of Route 1 and its bridges and culverts. According to 
Marine reports, the VC and NVA during the Tet offen- 
sive had damaged or destroyed 20 bridges and 26 cul- 
verts along Route 1 , largely between Hai Van Pass and 
Phu Bai. Oddly enough, the enemy pioneers and 
demolition teams caused relatively little damage in the 
Hai Van Pass itself, where Route 1 was most vulnera- 
ble. On 29 February, the engineers completed the 
repair work on the final section of Route 1 between 
Hai Van Pass and Phu Loc. Technically Route 1 was 
now open throughout the entire length of I Corps. Ill 
MAF, nevertheless, postponed the first road convoy 
from Da Nang to Phu Bai until March.'** 

With the end of Operation Hue City in sight, Gen- 
eral LaHue planned to use the 1st Marines to operate 
along the area northeast of Phu Bai in order to secure 
the water route of communication from the mouth of 
the Perffm-ie River to Hue City. Although the NVA 
and Viet Cong during the battle for the city, occasion- 
ally harassed river traffic along the Perfume River, 
they never succeeded in cutting this vital logistic life- 
line for the allied forces in the city and at Phu Bai. On 
12 February, Task Force X-Ray had taken over from 
the 3d Marine Division the responsibility for the pro- 
tection of the Naval Support Activity at the Col 
Co/Tan My LST ramp at the mouth of the Perfume 
River. From the LST ramp, supplies were either tran- 
shipped by truck to Phu Bai or loaded on board LCUs 
and smaller river craft for delivery at the LCU Ramp 
in Hue City. During the month of February, enemy 



gunners struck 44 of the smaller naval craft and 
destroyed two LCUs." 

With the closing of Route 1 during much of Feb- 
ruary and the continuing arrival of Army units in 
Thua Thien and Quang Tri Provinces, resupply by 
sea became even more critical. One Marine staff offi- 
cer later remembered that when the 1st Air Cavalry 
and the 101st Airborne units first deployed north, 
"it was touch and go." Fortunately, the Army's 1st 
Logistical Command together with III MAF and a 
Navy pontoon causeway unit had already made 
preparations for the development of a logistic over- 
the-shore facility along the coast running parallel to 
Hai Lang in southern Quang Tri Province. Army 
logistic planners estimated that the Army forces 
would require, "3,600 tons of supplies daily in an 
area where existing supply lines were just barely 
able to keep up with requirements." While work 
began in February, the new logistical facility, called 
Wunder Beach, did not become fially operational 
until mid-March. -0 

During February, the 1st Air Cavalry Division con- 
tinued Operation Jeb Stuart in northern Thua Thien 
and southern Quang Tri Provinces. While operating to 
some extent in enemy Base Areas 114 and 101, the 
division confined most of its activity to the battle for 
Hue City, the establishment of Camp Evans, and the 
buildup of its forces near Quang Tri City at Hai Lang.** 
Indicative of the growing influence of the Army in this 
sector, the 1st Air Cavalry took over more of the 3d 
Marine Division area of operations. On 16 February, 
the Cavalry's 1st Brigade assumed operational control 
of the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines and responsibility for 
the 3d Marines' former Osceola II tactical area near 
Quang Tri. While the 3d Marines, with only rear ech- 
elon troops attached to it, still remained accountable 
for the interior defense of the new Quang Tri base and 
airfield, the Army's 1st Brigade now provided the pro- 
tection to the approaches for both the Marine base and 
the new Army bases at Hai Lang and Wunder Beach.-' 



*The other rwo battalions of the 5th Marines, the 1st and 2d Bat- 
talions, were attached to the 1st Marines in Operation Hue City. See 
Chapter 12. 



** During the month, the 1st Air Cavalry consisted of its 1st 
Brigade at Hai Lang; the 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne Division at Camp 
Evans; and its 3d Brigade taking part in the battle for Hue, although 
still nominally part of Operation Jeb Stuart. The division's participa- 
tion in the battle for Hue, which was included in its overall statistics 
for Jeb Stuart, accounted for nearly half of the 1st Cavalry's 1,167 casu- 
alties for the month as well the reportedly 2,000 losses it inflicted on 
the enemy for the month. The 1st Air Cavalry's 2d Brigade was slated 
to relieve the 101st Airborne's 2d Brigade at Camp Evans in March. Ill 
MAF ComdC, Feb68; 'Waldron and Beavers, "The Critical Year, 1968," 
pp. 19—20. See also Chapter 12. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



231 



.- .-*^^is^^'^^ -*:> ^IfcsSiaai 




Photo is from the Abel Collection 
A Navy LCU (landing craft, utility) arrives at the Dong Ha LCU ramp laden with drutns of 
asphalt. Although the NVA made some attempts to close the Cua Viet, the Navy had established 
Task Force Clearwater to convoy river traffic from the coast to Dong Ha. 



Another reason for the relief of the 3d Marines at 
Quang Tri was to free the reginrient to assume control 
over the ground operations to safeguard the vital Cua 
Viet water passageway to Dong Ha. With the interdic- 
tion of much of Route 1 during and after Tet, the life- 
line of the Marine forces in the north depended more 
and more upon the sea and to a somewhat lesser extent 
upon air resupply. During February, III MAF sent by 
ship from Da Nang to Dong Ha over 45,700 short tons 
of material as compared to 342 tons arriving at Dong 
Ha by air. With the disruption of the land lines of com- 
munication and the occasional enemy interdiction of 
the Cua Viet, the 3d Marine Division reported that the 
"division's [supply] requirement fell short." The divi- 
sion especially lacked communications equipment and 
repair parts. In order to meet the division's needs, III 
MAF limited shipment to those supplies considered 



"combat essential."' With the approval of MACV, Gen- 
eral Cushman also curtailed the shipment of "Dye- 
marker" material and halted all construction work on 
the barrier. Still Major General Rathvon McC. Tomp- 
kins, the 3d Marine Division commander, recalled that 
in mid-February at a very critical juncture, the division 
received for three days large "shipments of cement and 
culverts from Da Nang." According to Tompkins, he 
sent an angry message to III MAF to "delay the culverts 
and cement in favor of food and ammunition. "-- 



* Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lehrack, who as a captain commanded 
Company I, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, commented that during this 
period resupply was difficult for the Marines of his battalion: "We took 
helmets, flak jackets and boots off our dead. I knew a Marine in Graves 
Registration who was my only reliable source tor compasses." LtCol 
Otto Lehrack, Comments on draft, dtd 19Nov94 (Vietnam Comment 
File), hereafter Lehrack Comments. 



232 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Despite certain "snafus" such as the unwanted 
cement, the American command quickly took steps 
to ensure the logistic support to its forces in the 
north. In the Cua Viet sector, on 24 February, the 
Navy established Task Force Clearwater under III 
MAF to coordinate river traffic and convoys of Navy 
craft from the Cua Viet facility to Dong Ha.* Dur- 
ing the month, enemy gunners killed 7 sailors, 
wounded 47 more, and damaged 27 Navy vessels. 
On 27 February, for example, an enemy B^O rock- 
et-propelled grenade struck an LCU on the Cua Viet 
laden with explosives resulting in the disabling of 
both the LCU and an escort patrol boat. Most of the 
convoyed vessels, however, completed the trip with- 
out incident. 23 

The 3d Marine Division also took measures to safe- 
guard the Cua Viet and attempt to keep North Viet- 
namese regulars and VC main force units out of the 
northeastern quadrant ot Quang Tri Province above 
the Cua Viet. On 29 February, Major General Tomp- 
kins combined the two operations in the sector. Oper- 
ation Napoleon and Operation Saline into one opera- 
tion. Operation Napoleon/Saline under the control of 
the 3d Marines. Colonel Milton A. Hull, who had 
assumed command of the 3d Marines on 18 February 
from Colonel Joseph E. Lo Prete, moved his command 
post on the 29th, from the Quang Tri airfield to the 
Cua Viet facility and collocated it with the 1st 
Amphibian Tractor Battalion. --> 

While Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. Toner, the 
commander of the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 
during February nominally had operational control 
of both Operations Napoleon and Saline, his con- 
cerns were mainly with the activities of his own bat- 
talion. In February, during Operation Napoleon, the 
amphibian tractor battalion, with one attached rifle 
company, limited itself to patrols generally around 
the Cua Viet Naval Facility at the mouth of the 
river. While ground contact remained light, the 
enemy subjected the base to heavy incoming rocket 
and artillery fire and continued efforts to interdict 



*Task Force Clearwater consisted of 20 river patrol boats (PBRs), 
reinforced with monitors, armored river craft, PACVs (Patrol Air 
Cushioned Vehicles), landing craft, and minesweepers. The Task Force 
was responsible not only for the Cua Viet, but also the Perfume River 
further south which provided access to the sea for the city of Hue. It 
maintained its headquarters at Mobile Base II, a floating barge com- 
plex, located first at Tan My and then moved north to the Cua Viet. 
Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Air, and Land, An Illustrated History of the 
U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington: Naval Historical 
Center, 1994), p. 188. See also Chapter 28. 



the river with uneven results. For the month in 
Operation Napoleon, the Marines sustained casual- 
ties of 4 dead and 30 wounded while accounting for 
79 of the enemy.25 

The SLF Bravo battalion, BLT 3/1, under Lieu- 
tenant Colonel Max McQuown, in Operation 
Saline, operating for the most part above, but occa- 
sionally below, the Cua Viet, on the other hand, 
continued to encounter elements of the 805d NVA 
Regiment.** In February, the battalion killed over 
270 of the enemy, took 18 prisoners, and recovered 
72 individual and 35 crew-served enemy weapons. 
According to both Marine and ARVN sources, 
since 29 January, the allies had killed 1,000 enemy 
troops in the Cua Viet region and had prevented an 
attack on Dong Ha.^^ 

While the watch on the Cua Viet remained some- 
what tenuous, the enemy forces continued to mount 
pressure on Khe Sanh and still posed a threat to the 
Marine positions south of the DMZ in Operations 
Kentucky and Lancaster II.*" As one 3d Marine Divi- 
sion staff officer remarked, the NVA in the border 
region, "always had someone pressing us somewhere." 
In the 4th Marines Operation Lancaster II, after an 
ambush of a convoy near Camp Carroll on Route 9 in 
early February and a company engagement near Ca 
Lu, the North Vietnamese forces largely limited 
themselves to artillery and mortar bombardments of 
Marine positions. On 28 February, a NVA antiaircraft 
gun shot down a Marine CH^6 not far from Ca Lu 
resulting in the death of 22 Marines. For the month 



**See Chapter 7 for description of the BLT's activities during late 
January and early February in Operation Badger Catch/Saline. In the 
final stages of the battle of Hue, the South Vietnamese Marines cap- 
tured North Vietnamese troops from the 803d NVA Regiment. See 
Chapter 12. Colonel Max McQuown, the then BLT commander, later 
recalled two significant operations south of the Cua Viet. In the first 
case, the BLT attached reconnaissance platoon, operating south of the 
river, sighted NVA formations. Employing LVTs and LCUs to cross the 
river, the rest of the battalion supported by tanks surrounded the NVA 
in a village. With the tanks lighting up the area with their Xenon 
lights and after an artillery and mortar bombardment, McQuown 
launched a night attack and secured the hamlet. While the battalion 
remained south of the river, the reconnaissance platoon spotted anoth- 
er group of NVA in a neighboring village and the battalion secured 
this hamlet as well. Before the BLT retutned to its base area north of 
the river, the Marines searched another village and collected a large 
number of young males in civilian clothes. Suspecting they were North 
Vietnamese, the Marines turned them over to the South Vietnamese. 
Col Max McQuown, Comments on draft, dtd 22Nov94 (Vietnam 
Comment File), hereafter McQuown Comments. 

***See Chapter 14 for description of operations at Khe Sanh and 
Chapter 7 for Operations Kentucky and Lancaster II in early February. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



233 




Top IS Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A801311 and bottom is Department o ms^Be (USMC) Photo A650034 
Top, Marines from BUT 2/4 taking part in Operation Lancaster II exchange fire under smoke cover 
across an open field with North Vietnamese troops about 2,000 tneters north of Camp Carroll. Below, 
Marines from the same battalion and operation rush across open ground with two of the troops car- 
rying 5. 5 -inch rockets. 




234 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Photo is from the Abel CuUcccion 
A Marine M48 tank from the 5d Tank Battalion rumbles past a battle-damaged church just east 
of Con Thien. Marines from Con Thien outpost had spotted three North Vietnamese tanks north of 
their position in North Vietnam. 



in Operation Lancaster II, the Marines reported 
killing 85 of the enemy and sustained casualties of 58 
dead and 321 wounded. 27 

In the 9th Marines sector in the Kentucky area of 
operations, the Marines confirmed the presence of 
the 320th NVA Division which had replaced the 
524B Division in the DMZ war. The North Viet- 
namese maintained a screening force south of the 
DMZ and the Marine outpost at Con Thien, on 16 
February, observed three North Vietnamese tanks 
north of their position and called in air. According to 
Marine reports, the North Vietnamese had two 
armored regiments, the 202d and 205d NVA, each 
with 80 tanks (40 T-34s and 40 PT76s). Although 
not knowing the location of the two armored regi- 
ments, American intelligence acknowledged the 
capability of the enemy to use tanks in areas where 
he could secretly mass his forces "and overrun friend- 
ly outposts with little opposition." The Marines pre- 
pared anti-mechanized plans. 2** 

For the most part, the ground action in Kentucky 
slackened after the first two weeks of February. In one 
of the sharpest encounters, however, on 16 February, a 
3d Battalion, 3d Marines two-company sweep of the 



southern DME encountered NVA infantrymen in 
bunkers, but no tanks. With the assistance of air, the 
Marines killed approximately 20 of the enemy at the 
cost of 4 Marine dead and 6 wounded.* While the 
enemy mounted no major offensive against Marine 
positions in Kentucky during the latter part of the 
month, the NVA continued to deploy forces in and 
through the DMZ.29 

As in the Lancaster area of operations, the enemy 
intensified his artillery, rocket, and mortar shelling 
of Marine positions and base areas in the Kentucky 
area. In one of the more spectacular instances, on 26 
February, the North Vietnamese gunners fired some 
400 artillery and mortar rounds and scored direct 
hits on the Dong Ha airfield and the Force Logistic 
Support Group Bravo complex located there. While 
casualties were relatively low, one dead and several 
wounded, material damage was heavy. The shelling 
destroyed two light Army observation aircraft, an 



* Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lehtack observed that his Company I was 
the only one of the two companies involved that had contact in this pat- 
ticular action. He remembered that the contact took place in the north- 
ern sector of a prime enemy infiltration route. Lehrack Comments. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



235 




Photo is from the 3d MarDiv ComdC, Feb68 
An officers' quarters in the 5d Marine Division command post sector at Dong Ha has been completely 
demolished by a direct hit fiwn a North Vietnamese 122mm rocket. 



ammunition storage dump, and 20,000 gallons of 
diesel fuel. In Kentucky during the month, the 
Marines sustained casualties of 89 dead and 267 
wounded. During the same period, they reported 
killing nearly 400 of the enemy and capturing 39 
prisoners. 

While the bombardment of the Dong Ha base 
exposed its vulnerability to enemy weaponry, some 
relief of the logistic situation for the allied forces in 
the north was in sight. The new Quang Tri base, 
which was for the most part out of enemy artillery 
range except for mortars and the occasional rocket, 
was about half completed and could begin to share 
part of the logistic burden. By the end of the month, 
the remaining 3d Marine Division rear echelon forces 
still at Phu Bai prepared to shift their operations to 
Quang Tri. At the same time, FLSG Bravo at Dong 
Ha moved some of its equipment and ammunition 
still in exposed storage sites to the Quang Tri base. 
The new Wunder Beach facility also was nearing 
completion. While the North Vietnamese forced the 
allies to convoy naval craft along both the Cua Viet 



and Perfume Rivers, the supplies were getting 
through. As the III MAF commander. Lieutenant 
General Cushman, five months later explained, "with 
the increased forces in Northern I Corps and logistic 
support problems . . ., we had to move cautiously 
until our logistics pipeline was capable of supporting 
a bold and aggressive campaign throughout ICTZ."3o 

Readjustments in the U.S. I Corps 
Command Structure 

With the arrival of Army forces in northern I 
Corps, MACV and III MAF continued to readjust the 
command structure in the north. From the beginning 
of the year, General Westmoreland had his doubts 
about the capability of the III MAF and Marine divi- 
sion staffs to control the expanding war in the north." 
In early January', he convinced the new Marine Corps 
Commandant, General Leonard F. Chapman, who was 
on a visit to Vietnam, that both the 1st and 3d Miirine 



*See chapter 1 for the discussion of Westmoreland's doubts about 
the Marine Corps command structure. 



236 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Divisions required an additional brigadier general 
assistant division commander. According to the 
MACV commander, the "wide dispersion" of division 
units dictated that the JMarine Corps adopt the Army 
practice of two assistant division commanders "for 
most effective command and control." General Chap- 
man concurred as did Admiral Sharp, the Pacific the- 
ater commander. By mid-January, the Defense 
Department authorized each of the Marine divisions 
two assistant division commanders.^' 

With the new authorization, General Chapman 
immediately set out to fill the new billets. On 19 Jan- 
uary, he informed both MACV and Lieutenant Gener- 
al Krulak, the FMFPac commander, that he had 
ordered Brigadier General Jacob Glick, the former 
commander of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade 

Right, BGen Jacob E. Glick, here in an official portrait, 
relieved BGen Louis Metzger, who was about to be promoted 
to major general, as Assistant Division Commander of the 5d 
Marine Division. Below, from left, MajGen Rathvon McC. 
Tompkins, the 5d Division commander; Gen Leonard F. 
Chapman. Commandant of the Marine Corps; MajGen 
Metzger; and LtGen Robert E. Cushman. CG. Ill AlAF, 
hold the two-star flag of newly promoted Ala jG en Metzger. 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A4 19340 
3d MarDiv ComdC, Jan68 




POST-TET IN I CORPS 



237 



on Okinawa, to Vietnam as the second assistant divi- 
sion commander (ADC) for the 3d Marine Division. 
Chapman was "searching for another brig gen for 1st 
MarDiv and will send him earliest."*' 

Actually Brigadier General Click relieved 
Brigadier General Louis Metzger, whose tour of duty 
was about to end. Metzger had controlled the 3d 
Marine Division (Fwd) headquarters at Dong Ha 
until Major General Tompkins had moved his com- 
mand post there from Phu Bai.* Tompkins wanted 
Click back at the division rear at Phu Bai to supervise 
the transfer from Phu Bai to the new 3d Division rear 
base at Quang Tri. The enemy's Tet offensive, howev- 
er, delayed the move and through February General 
Click shared space with Brigadier General Foster C. 
LaHue's 1st Marine Division Task Force X-Ray head- 
quarters at Phu Bai. According to Glick, he looked 
after the logistic support forces there while LaHue 
controlled operations.'' 

Brigadier General Carl W. Hoffman, who arrived 
in Vietnam a few days after Glick, in fact, became the 
second assistant division commander of the 3d 
Marine Division. With the greater emphasis upon the 
3d Division area of operations which included the 
DMZ and Khe Sanh, General Cushman delayed until 
February appointing a second assistant division com- 
mander to the 1st Marine Division. Indeed, when 
General Hoffman, who had just served as Military 
Secretary to the Marine Corps Commandant, landed 
at the Da Nang Air Base, Cushman first thought to 
place him temporarily in a special III MAF billet. 
According to the III MAF commander, he considered 
establishing a "III MAF War Room (Fwd) at Dong 
Ha" and making Hoffman his personal representative 
to the 3d Marine Division. General Westmoreland's 
decision to create the new MACV (Forward) head- 
quarters** at Phu Bai under his deputy. General 
Abrams, made the idea of a forward III MAF head- 
quarters superfluous. Brigadier General Hoffman 
joined General Tompkins at Dong Ha as the 3d 
Marine Division ADC for operations." 

By this time, it was clear that III MAF was to 
become truly a joint command rather than basically 
a Marine Corps headquarters. As General Hoffman 
several years later remembered, "at that time we real- 
ized that the United States Army was moving to tlie 
north in earnest." In mid-January, General West- 




*See Chapter 3 for the move of the 3d Marine Division headquar- 
ters north to Dong Ha in January. 

**See Chapter 1 1 tor the estabhshment of MACV (Fwd) at Phu Bai. 



Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A4 14846 
BGen Carl W. Hoffman became the Assistant Division 
Commander (ADC) of the 5d Marine Division for opera- 
tions. The 5d Marine Division noiv had two ADCs. 

moreland assigned Army Brigadier General Salve H. 
Matheson, the former commander of the 1st Brigade, 
101st Airborne Division, to Lieutenant General 
Cushman's staff as Deputy Commander, Army. In a 
reclama, the III MAF commander asked Westmore- 
land for permission to change Matheson's designa- 
tion to "Deputy for Army Matters." As General 
Cushman explained. Marine Major General Ray- 
mond L. Murray was already Deputy Commander for 
all U.S. forces in III MAF. Cushman wanted to use 
Matheson as a "point of contact for major Army com- 
manders " and as an advisor to the III MAF command 
as to "Army capabilities in both the operational and 
logistical fields." Westmoreland agreed to the 
change, but stated that in the meantime that Math- 
eson would temporarily be made the J— 3 or opera- 
tions officer for the new MACV (Forward) headquar- 
ters at Phu Bai. '5 

From the Marine perspective, the activation of the 
MACV (Forward) headquarters at Phu Bai did noth- 
ing to ease the command relationships in the north. It 
anything, it added to the problem by laying an inter- 



238 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Center of Military History 
In February 1 968, MACV established a forward head- 
quarters at Phu Bai under U.S. Army Gen Creighton W. 
Abrams, Deputy ComUSMACV, which caused some resent- 
ment among Marine officers. 

posing headquarters between III MAF and MACV 
and providing an additional layer of command from 
above. According to General Cushman, "when 
Abrams came north, oh Christ, we got messages all 
night long, in the middle of the Goddamned night 
and everything else."' Colonel Franklin L. Smith, a 
member of the III MAF G— 3 staff, recalled: "They 
[the MACV (Forward) Headquarters stafif} were locat- 
ed up there and forgot that they were a senior head- 
quarters to III MAF on one hand [by not keeping III 
MAF informed on its actions} and remembered very 
well on every other hand because they began to inter- 



*General Earl E. Anderson, who served as the III MAF Chief of 
Staff, remembered: "More than once I had to go to General Cushman 's 
quarters to awaken (not an easy task as he was a very sound sleeper and 
had a hearing loss suffered at Pearl Harbor when he was aboard the 
Pennsylvania) and ask him to come to the command center to take a call 
from Abrams on the scrambler phone, which he hated to use. While 
General Cushman respected Abrams as a combat officer, Abrams was 
very opinionated and often abrasive." Gen Earl E. Anderson, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 18Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



pose themselves between III MAF" and subordinate 
units. Cushman concluded, "as would be expected, 
having the senior commander's agent in the battle area 
resulted in his exercise of more command influence 
and direction of III MAF Forces . . . than is customar- 
ily exercised by the senior command." '^ 

The creation of the MACV (Forward) headquarters 
also caused resentment among Cushman's subordinate 
Marine commanders, if not Cushman himself. Major 
General Murray, the III MAF Deputy Commander, 
later stated that he assumed that MACV established 
the forward headquarters because it did not trust III 
MAF to control the situation. The 3d Marine Division 
commander General Tompkins was even more blunt: 
"I thought it was the most unpardonable thing that 
Saigon did." Despite the disclaimers on the part of 
MACV that it had still utmost trust and confidence in 
Cushman, Tompkins declared, "you don't move a 
MACV (Forward) up in a combat area unless you're 
very, very, very worried about the local commander, 
afraid he can't hack it. . . . it's tantamount to ... a relief 
of a commander. " 3^ 

On 14—15 February, the sudden relief of Major 
General Murray because oi illness by Marine Major 
General William J. Van Ryzin, who arrived from 
Washington, only compounded the confusion. 
Rumors circulated in Saigon about a shakeup in the 
Marine command, which was not the case. On the 
l4th, Murray informed General Cushman of his 
incapacity and turned himself into the hospital. Van 
Ryzin received the news on the morning of the l4th 
and was on an aircraft for Vietnam by 0600 the fol- 
lowing day.''^ 

By mid-February there was an obvious need to 
clarify the command relations in northern I Corps. 
On 17 February, at a meeting at Phu Bai with Gen- 
erals Abrams and Cushman, Westmoreland 
announced that he planned to form a provisional 
corps (which would formally be called Provisional 
Corps) in northern I Corps sometime in early March 
that would consist of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, 
the 101st Airborne Division, and the 3d Marine 
Division. The MACV (Forward) headquarters would 
then be deactivated and the new Provisional Corps 
would be subordinate to III MAF. General West- 
moreland stated that he hoped to appoint U.S. Army 
Lieutenant General William B. Rosson to head the 
new command. Rosson, the previous spring, had 
commanded the U.S. Army's Task Force Oregon 
which later became the Americal Division at Chu Lai. 
Having enjoyed excellent personal relations with III 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



239 



MAF, Rosson was an ideal selection.* To flirther allay 
Marine suspicions about the proposed command rela- 
tions, the MACV commander told Cushman that he 
might ask the Marine Corps to provide a major gen- 
eral as deputy commander for the new Provisional 
Corps (Prov Corps). While the 3d Marine Division 
would still receive close air support from the 1st 
Marine Aircraft Wing, the whole question about air 
control still remained unresolved. ^9 

For the time being, however. III MAF and MACV 
concentrated on working out the wrinkles for the 
establishment of the Provisional Corps. On 20 Feb- 
ruary, General Abrams sent out to the various inter- 
ested parties a proposed letter of instruction (LOI) for 
the new command. According to Abrams' proposal, 
the commander of the new corps would have opera- 
tional control of all units in the northern two 
provinces of I Corps with the exception of the Hai 
Van Pass area of Thua Thien Province. The corps 
would be similar in organization to the U.S. Field 
Forces I and II, with the exception that it would oper- 
ate under the Commanding General, III MAF, Gen- 
eral Cushman. Cushman would still remain the 
Senior Advisor in I Corps and maintain his relation- 
ship with the CORDS organization. Ill MAF would 
not have operational control of Seventh Air Force 
units in I Corps. The U.S. Army, Vietnam would pro- 
vide a headquarters to coordinate logistic support in 
the two northern provinces. Furthermore, the Prov 
Corps commander would have the authority to have 
direct liaison with General Lam, the I Corps com- 
mander and with the ARVN forces in his sector.^" 

In their comments on the proposed directive. Gen- 
eral Cushman and Rear Admiral Kenneth L. Veth, 
Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam took exception to 
or wanted further elaboration on some of the provi- 
sions. Admiral Veth desired assurances that he remain 
in the operational chain of command over the naval 
forces in I Corps including the Naval Support Activi- 
ty, Da Nang and the Seabees. He also assumed that the 
Navy would retain the responsibility for common 
items of supply for all U.S. forces in I Corps. General 
Cushman suggested that the tactical situation deter- 
mine the boundary between the 1st Marine Division 



*At the time, Lieutenant General Rosson was then Commanding 
General I Field Force Vietnam. According to General Westmoreland, 
Rosson would retain his position as commander of the I Field Force, so 
as to retain his third star while serving in a subordinate position. His 
deputy would become acting commander of the I Field Force com- 
mand. Westmoreland msg to Abrams, dtd 26Feb68 (EO Files, Abrams 
Papers, CMH.) 




U.S. Army Center of Military History, 
Top, U.S. Army LtGen William B. Rosson, Provisional 
(Prov) Corps Commander, is seen with South Vietnamese 
Col Quang Toan, the commander of the 2d ARVN Divi- 
sion. Below, Marine MajGen Raymond G. Davis, a hold- 
er of the Medal of Honor, was made Deputy Commander, 
Prov Corps. The new command replaced MACV (Fwd) 
and was a subordinate command of III MAF, which helped 
to smooth relations between the Marines and MACV. 

U.S. Marine Corps 




240 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



and Provisional Corps. He also opposed any proposal to 
place Task Force X-Ray under Prov Corps or any 
change in operational control or coordination in rela- 
tion to other U.S. or South Vietnamese forces in I 
Corps. The III MAP commander also asked that there 
be no diminishment in his authority over the 1st 
Marine Aircraft Wing to support both the 1st and 3d 
Marine Divisions. Relative to the logistic setup, Cush- 
man recommended that the III MAP PLC and the 
Army Logistic Command at Qui Nhon support their 
respective Services and that they work out an agree- 
ment on mutual support.-*! 

The proposed letter of instruction for Provisional 
Corps continued to be refined. On 27 February, Gen- 
eral Abrams sent a revised draft to General Westmore- 
land that incorporated some of the wishes of the 
Marines. The new draft still called for the establish- 
ment of an Army logistic headquarters in I Corps and 
left unresolved the boundary between the 1st Marine 
Division and Provisional Corps. It also tailed to men- 
tion the command relationship between Task Force X- 
Ray and Provisional Corps. In a message to General 
Westmoreland, General Cushman asked for a clearer 
demarcation of his authority. He wanted the letter of 
instruction to state specifically that Prov Corps would 
exercise operational control "of only ground tactical 
units" and that III MAP would retain control of all 
wing assets in I Corps. Again Cushman argued strong- 
ly that the 1st Division retain operational control of 
Task Force X-Ray and that its area of operations 
include the Phu Loc District as well as the Hai Van 
Pass sector of Thua Thien Province.^- 

On 3 March 1968, General Westmoreland finally 
issued the letter of instruction for Provisional (Prov) 
Corps. The final approved version designated Lieu- 
tenant General Rosson as the commanding general and 
10 March as the effective date for the formal establish- 
ment of the new command. Marine Major General 
Raymond G. Davis became the deputy commander 
under General Rosson. General Westmoreland also 
incorporated into the directive most of the changes rec- 
ommended by General Cushman. Still, Westmore- 
land's final directive clearly indicated that there was a 
special relationship between Prov Corps and MACV. 
Although General Cushman was to be his immediate 
superior, General Rosson was to submit reports "simul- 
taneously" to MACV and III MAF "to insure timely 
reporting." On the cover sheet of the III MAF copy of 
the LOI, a III MAF staff officer wrote, "I wonder why 
they don't want 1st Div and Americal Division reports 
direct?" General Cushman initialed the routing slip 



without comment. He had already lost one major bat- 
tle. On 7 March, General Westmoreland ordered, "all 
Marine fixed-wing strike and reconnaissance aircraft, 
and their associated Marine air control assets, be 
assigned effective 10 March 1968, to the mission direc- 
tion of Deputy for Air Operations, the Commanding 
General, Seventh Air Force. "^''* 

While assured, at least temporarily, of the primacy 
of his authority in northern I Corps, at least over all 
ground forces, and despite denials to the contrary. Gen- 
eral Cushman and his staff still harbored suspicions 
about the Army's, if not Westmoreland's, motiva- 
tions.** As Brigadier General Hoffman later declared, 
"it became necessary, or it became desirable, from our 
viewpoint to be sure that the Army didn't take over 
everything that we'd built up in that particular area." 
Colonel Franklin Smith of the III MAF staff remem- 
bered that the transition of MACV (Forward) into Pro- 
visional Corps was rather painful. The PCV staff was 
largely composed of the same personnel that made up 
the forward headquarters and "they tended to carry 
over the authority they had as MACV Forward peo- 
ple. " According to Smith, "we would have from time 
to time to pick up the phone and say you can't do this." 
Aware that the PCV G— 3 was to be a brigadier gener- 
al, Cushman assigned Brigadier General Hoffman 
temporarily to be the III MAF G— 3.*** As General 
Cushman concluded. III MAF was a Marine command 
only in relation to Marine peculiar things, "but for tac- 
tical operations it's a joint command."-'-' 



*See Chapters 23 and 24 for discussion of the Single Manager issue 
relative to Marine aviation. 

**In his interviews, Cushman supported both the crearion of 
MACV (Fwd) headquarters and the establishment of Provisional Corps. 
At the same time, however, his remarks indicated a suspicion that the 
Army was attempting to move into northern I Corps and that he took 
measures to guard against this. See Cushman Mar69 intvw, pp. 
459-60 and 465-66 and Cushman Presentation, tab F, pp. 18-9- 
Army historian Graham A. Cosmas observed: "It seems clear that 
Westmoreland expected a much bigger Communist offensive in the 
north than actually developed. He did not trust III MAF to handle it 
and wanted Abrams on the scene with a headquarters to control the 
battle if necessary. Westmoreland authorized Abrams at MACV Fwd to 
give tactical direction to III MAF's subordinate units if the situation 
required. ProvCorps did ease III MAF's span of control problems, but 
its presence raised Marine suspicions, although Rosson evidently did a 
good job of smoothing out relations with III MAF." Dr. Graham A. 
Cosmas, CMH, Comments on draft, dtd 23Nov94 (Vietnam Comment 
File). 

*** Hoffman nominally continued to be 3d Marine Division assis- 
tant division commander, but was carried on the 3d Marine Division 
rolls as TAD (temporary additional duty) at III MAF. 3d MarDiv and 
III MAF ComdCs, Feb-Apr68. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



241 



Planning for the Future 

With the new command staicture in I Corps large- 
ly in place at the beginning of March, the allies began 
to plan the counterofifensive. As General Cushman later 
explained, the idea was to go "after the enemy first in 
the coastal areas in a series of short duration operations, 
using the mobility of our forces to fix and destroy 
enemy forces which had escaped from the major Tet 
battle areas." On 2 March, at a meeting at III MAF 
headquarters in Da Nang, Generals Cushman and 
Abrams approved the planning concept for the final 
phase of the offensive. Operation Pegasus, the relief and 
breakout from Khe Sanh.^? 

On 10 March, with the formal establishment of 
Prov Corps, Lieutenant General Rosson* at his head- 
quarters in Phu Bai outlined for both Generals West- 
moreland and Cushman his full plans for the coun- 
teroffensive in the north. The first effort would be the 
continuing operations against enemy forces in the Con 
Thien-Gio Linh forces north of Dong Ha. At the end 
of March and the beginning of April, the 1st Air Cav- 
alry Division and the 3d Marine Division would give 
priority to the opening of Route 9 and beginning 
Operation Pegasus for the relief of Khe Sanh.** Follow- 
ing the relief of Khe Sanh, Prov Corps would then 
undertake a reconnaissance-in-force into the A Shau 
Valley southwest of Hue.^'' 

At the 10 March meeting. General Westmoreland 
approved Rosson's concept and also directed General 
Cushman to undertake a broad-based study to estimate 
the fijture requirements for the defense of northern I 
Corps. General Cushman turned the task over to his 
acting G— 3, Brigadier General Hoffman with a due 
date of 1 April. For planning purposes, Hoffman's 
study group was to assume that the political aspects of 
the war would not change and that there would be no 
flirther refinement of the rules of engagement. The 
planners were to assume that by 1 September Khe Sanh 
was no longer in danger and that Route 9 would be 
open from Khe Sanh to Dong Ha. By that date, one of 



* Although General Rosson did not assume command of Prov Corps 
until 10 March, since 1 March he had been the Deputy Commander, 
MACV (Forward). Waldron and Beavers, "The Critical Year, 1968," p. 19. 

** According to General Rosson, he first wanted to mount a major 
offensive in the center and eastern portion of the 3d Marine Division 
and then sometime later follow with the Pegasus operation. He wrote 
that both Generals Cushman and Westmorel'and overruled him "in 
turn based on what I was told was President Johnson's insistence that 
Khe Sanh be relieved soonest." Gen William B. Rosson, USA, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 27Feb95 (Vietnam Comment File). See also Chap- 
ter 14 for the Pegasus planning. 



the Army divisions, either the 1st Air Cavalry or the 
101st Airborne, would have been detached from I 
Corps. Also included in the scenario for the study were 
the assumptions that the enemy would not have made 
any major reinforcement of his forces in the north and 
that the situation elsewhere in I Corps would not have 
required any depletion of the remaining units in the 
northern two provinces. According to MACV's guide- 
lines, Hoffman's group was to look especially at "the 
pertinent aspects of the dyemarker system" relative to 
Khe Sanh and the DMZ strongpoints. Westmoreland 
directed that the analysis be '"wide open' and not con- 
strained by past policies or precedents."''^ 

Hoffman's group completed its study within the 
designated time and made several proposals relative to 
the war in the north. Given their guidelines, the III 
MAF planners concentrated on the future of the barri- 
er, the strongpoints and allied forces along the DMZ, 
and the base at Khe Sanh. As far as the A Shau Valley, 
the group recommended only the establishing of a fire 
base in the approaches to the valley, and limiting oper- 
ations to artillery and infantry raids. In probably one of 
its more controversial conclusions, the panel suggested 
the abandonment of Khe Sanh in favor of a much 
smaller base at Ca Lu. The group argued that the 
defense of JQie Sanh would require a force of at least 10 
battalions. Relative to the barrier, the Hoffman panel 
observed that the enemy threat in the DMZ sector was 
"invasion, as opposed to infiltration." The study group 
contended that the barrier strongpoints actually assist- 
ed the enemy by placing Marine and allied forces in 
fixed and static positions within NVA artillery range. 
Still the III MAF study advised against cancellation of 
Dyemarker because a "major conceptual change at this 
time might not be politically or psychologically 
acceptable." Instead, the III MAF panel suggested an 
"indefinite deferral of further Dyemarker SPOS {strong 
point obstacle system] while maintaining current posi- 
tions with a reduced number offerees." While most of 
its recommendations were not immediately imple- 
mented, the III MAF study clearly outlined the future 
prospects facing the allied forces in the northern war. 

March Operations in the DMZ Sector 

While the American command planned to take the 
initiative from the enemy, the North Vietnamese still 
maintained formidable forces in the field, especially in 
the eastern DMZ sector in Operations Kentucky and 
Napoleon/Saline. In the Cua Viet region, in early 
March, this became increiisingly evident. In Operation 



242 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Napoleon/Saline, on 1 March, Company M, BLT 3/1, 
supported by n\'o engineer LVTE— Is and two howitzer 
LVTH— 6s from the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, 
crossed Jones Creek just above where it emptied into 
the Cua Viet for a sweep into the hamlet of Alai Xa Thi 
(West).^* 

Earlier, the LVTEs and LVTHs "swam down the 
Cua Viet to a position a few meters south ol the village 
and west of Jones Creek. From there, the LVTEs shot 
line charges over the houses fronting the river, levelling 
the structures and "clearing the way for the follow on 
Marines." The LVTHs fired canister rounds into the 
village and then moved to new positions off shore to 
support the infantn,'. While still on the LVTs carr\'ing 
them across the river, the Marine company came under 
accurate fire from the western bank of Jones Creek."' 
Lieutenant Colonel Max McQuown, the BLT com- 
mander, immediately ordered his Compan}' I to secure 
the left flank of Company M and the southern portion 
of Mai Xa Thi. In heavy fighting that lasted until 
nightfall, the two companies killed 36 of the enemy 
and took 3 prisoners. During the next rw'o days, BLT 
3/1 operated in the village and secured a small island, 
just below Mai Xa Thi, in the Cua Viet River. The bat- 
talion uncovered 83 more bodies and captured another 
prisoner. Marine casualties were also heav)' — 27 killed 
and 81 wounded. 

In this renewed fighting for Mai Xa Thi, the 
Marines learned that elements of the 520th NVA Diii- 
sion were coming into the Cua Viet sector to replace the 
805d NVA Regiment which had the previous month 
moved south into Thua Thien Province. While most of 
the enemy dead were from the 210th Main Force Regi- 
ment, which had long operated in the region, two of the 
prisoners, a lieutenant and a private, were from the 32d 
NVA Regiment, 320th NVA Division. Up to this time, 
the 32d had been in reserve above the DMZ in North 
Vietnam, while the other two regiments of the divi- 
sion, the 48th and 64th had moved into the Kentucky 
and Lancaster areas.-*^**' 



*This was to differentiate it from chat portion of the village of Mai 
Xa Thi on the eastern bank of Jones Creek. 

** Colonel McQuown noted as a safety precaution "against mines 
and RPG rounds," the Marine infantry rode on top of LVTs rather than 
inside when they were used as troop carriers. McQuown Comments. 

*** Colonel McQuown related that he turned over his prisoners 
together with weapons and documents to the 3d Marine Division; 
"These NVA troops were fresh, mostly young males, and carried brand 
new weapons . . ." including a flame thrower and a "fragmentation 
grenade launcher 'far superior to its U.S. counterpart'." Relative to the 
flame thrower, McQuown observed, "this was the first and only time 
we had seen one in the hands of the NVA." McQuown Comments. 



Under questioning, the two prisoners declared they 
were part of a small detachment from a heavy weapons 
company and an advance party of their regiment. Their 
mission had been to provide RPG (rocket-propelled 
grenade) support for the 2^ 0th unit in Mai Xa Thi 
against Marine amphibian tractors and tanks in the 
Cua Viet sector. Both prisoners claimed that the bulk 
of their regiment was to infiltrate south on the night of 
1—2 March, but gave conflicting accounts. According 
to the lieutenant, the rest of the regiment was to cross 
the Ben Hai River, just west of the so-called "Freedom 
Bridge" into South Vietnam and that the final destina- 
tion of the regiment was Quang Tri City. The private, 
on the other hand, related that the regiment would 
cross the Ben Hai by boat near the ocean and then infil- 
trate into the Cua Viet sector. Although cooperative, 
the 18-year-old enlisted man had little other informa- 
tion except that "they had orders to remain close to the 
Cua Viet." While the lieutenant may have known 
more of the big picture, his Marine interrogators were 
suspicious of his testimony. They reported that "the 
captive continually tried to lie throughout the interro- 
gation" and that "his reliability could not be deter- 
mined. "'O 

While the intelligence of a new North Vietnamese 
unit in the Cua Viet pointed to the continued presence 
of enemy units in this vital area, the Marines had 
already started their own buildup in the sector. With 
his new command post at the Cua Viet base, Colonel 
Hull, the 3d Marines commander, had just taken con- 
trol of the operation. The forces in Napoleon/Saline 
included both BLT 3/1 and the 1st Amphibian Tractor 
Battalion. On 4 March, Hull's 1st Battalion, 3d 
Marines joined the operation, moving up from the 
Quang Tri base to the Cua Viet sector. The following 
day, there was another adjustment of forces, but this 
was an exchange of missions rather than a reinforce- 
ment. BLT 2/4 under Lieutenant Colonel William 
Weise redeployed from the Lancaster II area of opera- 
tions to the Napoleon/Saline operation, replacing BLT 
3/1. The latter battalion then took the place of the for- 
mer in the Lancaster area of operations. 5i"" 



**** Colonel Bruce F. Meyers, who at the time commanded SLF 
Alpha, obsers'ed that BLT 2/4 remained under the administrative 
control of the SLF commander for medical evacuation of casualties 
and "a significant portion of logistic support," even while under the 
operational control of various regimental commanders. He recalled 
that the embarked SLF helicopter squadron, HMM-363, helilifted 
BLT 3/1 to Camp Carroll and in exchange brought BLT 2/4 to the 
Cua Viet sector. Col Bruce F. Meyers, Comments on draft, dtd 
20Feb95 (Vietnam Comment File). 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



243 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A 194604 
Marines of BLT 2/4 ride amphibian tractors (LVTs) in the Cua Viet during Operation 
Napoleon/Saline. Note the sandbags on the tractors to protect the Marines from explosive rounds. The 
BLT redeployed from the Lancaster area to the coastal Napoleon sector in early March. 



Even with the enemy reinforcement in his sector, 
the addition of another battahon to his forces permit- 
ted Colonel Hull to undertake expanded operations on 
both sides of the Cua Viet. While at the beginning of 
the month, the North Vietnamese continued their 
attempts to interdict the river, they eventually limited 
these efforts to attacks by fire. On 8 March, the Navy 
announced that the Cua Viet was open and that allied 
shipping no longer required convoys. '^ 

Still the enemy was far from quiescent. On 10 
March, enemy artillery hit the Cua Viet base, igniting 
150 short tons of ammunition. The resulting explosion 
and fire caused the death of one American serviceman 
and injuries to several others. It also destroyed a mess 
hall, a communications van, and 47 out of the 64 sites 
holding 10,000-gallon POL bladders. By the end of 
the month, the base had only repaired or replenished 
60 percent of the sites, equipment, and supplies 
destroyed in the attack.^' 

In several sharp encounters north of the Cua Viet 
during the month. Marine infantry sweeps also met 
with stiff resistance. Lieutenant Colonel Weise's BLT 



2/4, just arrived in the sector, bore the brunt of this 
fighting. On 18 March, one of the bloodiest actions 
occurred in an abandoned hamlet about 1,000 meters 
southwest of Mai Xa Thi (West). Supported by 
artillery north of the DMZ and with well-designed 
fields of fire for their small arms and machine guns, the 
entrenched enemy held off three companies of BLT 2/4 
throughout the day. With the assistance of their own 
artillery and close air strikes, the Marines finally forced 
the enemy to withdraw. After entering the hamlet the 
next day, the Marines found 72 bodies and captured 4 
prisoners. Other sources estimated that the enemy 
death toll may have been as high as 130 as a result of 
the airstrikes on the retreating forces. The cost had 
been high to the Marines as well. BLT 2/4 suffered 
casualties of 13 dead and 1 10 wounded. For the entire 
month in Operation Napoleon/Saline, the 3d Marine 
Division reported to have killed more than 440 of the 
enemy while sustaining in turn 65 fatalities and over 
450 wounded. According to Lieutenant Colonel 
Weise, the Marines were doing the best they could in 
a "very active area." Weise praised Colonel Hull, the 3d 



244 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Marines commander and in charge of the operation, 
calling him, "an extremely competent Marine, a good 
leader," but "frustrated as we all were without adequate 
resources to do the job . . . ."'"* 

During the month, there were also continued clash- 
es to the west of Napoleon/Saline in the 2d ARVN Reg- 
iment sector and in the 9th Marines' Kentucky area of 
operations. Located between Napoleon/Saline and Ken- 
tucky, the 2d ARVN operated largely east of Route 1 
and west of Jones Creek. For the most part, the ARVN 
regiment gave a good account of itself In their most 
significant engagement, on 1 2 March just east of Route 
1 and about 2,000 meters below Gio Linh, the South 
Vietnamese unit claimed to have killed over 200 of the 
enemy at a cost of 4 ARVNJ killed and 15 wounded.^' 

Further to the west along the DMZ front, the North 
Vietnamese remained active in the 9th Marines' Ken- 
tucky sector. Most of the action centered in the area 
between Gio Linh and Con Thien. On 3 March, in one 
of the more significant of the encounters. Company L, 
3d Battalion, 3d Marines intercepted an NVA battal- 
ion attempting to infiltrate the Marine positions. The 
battalion maintained a two-company outpost on Hill 
28 just north of the A-3 Strong Point, manned by 
Companies I and L. On the morning of the 3d, Captain 
Roger Zensen, the Company L commander, accompa- 
nied his 2d Platoon on a reconnaissance patrol to the 
northwest. Just before noon, at one of the patrol check- 
points, the Marines "spotted an NVA soldier about 
800—1,000 meters to the north. He appeared to be an 
officer with binoculars scanning the terrain to the 
south in our direction." Zensen recalled that the pla- 
toon sergeant asked him for permission to shoot at the 
man with a Ml 6, but the company commander denied 
the request so as not to give away their position. Cap- 
tain Zensen later wrote, "Oh if we only had our snipers, 
it would have been a sure kill." Instead he had his 
enlisted artillery forward observer call in a fire mission. 
The Marine platoon then checked out the area "right 
along the southern edge of the DMZ." While finding 
no enemy casualties, there was "obvious evidence of 
recent activity. "'^ 

At that point, the Marine platoon came under rifle 
and grenade fire. The Marines returned fire but the 
enemy troops continued to close and Captain Zensen 
requested reinforcements. The only available forces 
were two platoons of his own company on Hill 28, 
600-800 meters to the southeast. At the same time, an 
air observer called in fixed-wing airstrikes and helped to 
coordinate artillery missions. Zensen remembered that 
the enemy "moved in close to avoid the air strikes" and 



also "circled our right flank." Another 20 or so enemy 
troops took up position to the Marine rear, taking cover 
in a bomb shelter. "With the assistance of machine gun 
fire, the platoon prevented the NVA from advancing 
any further until the "AO was able to direct the fire of 
Huey gunships at the enemy and silence" one of the 
positions. By this time, the two other platoons arrived 
and reinforced both flanks. As the company disengaged, 
enemy artillery fired upon them, but "fortunately was 
not on target." In the skirmish, the Marine reports 
showed over 100 of the enemy killed at a cost of one 
Marine dead and 13 wounded.* Zensen called it "a hell 
of a fight and a scary afternoon." He observed that lucky 
for the Marines the enemy force "was apparently on the 
move and had not fortified their positions." 

A few days later, on 16 March, again near the A— 3 
Strong Point, Companies M, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines 
and C, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines clashed with anoth- 
er battalion-sized enemy force. The two Marine com- 
panies called in artillery and air upon the North Viet- 
namese troops. Under the supporting arms 
bombardment, the bulk of the enemy battalion disen- 
gaged, but left a company behind to fight a rear guard 
action. North Vietnamese artillery from north of the 
DMZ answered the American supporting arms with a 
400-round barrage of its own on the Marines. Accord- 
ing to one Marine report, because of the "inaccuracy of 
the hastily delivered enemy artillery, " the two Marine 
companies "assaulted into the enemy trenches, killing 
83 NVA before contact was broken at 1530." Marine 
casualties were two killed and nine wounded. For the 
entire month in Operation Kentucky, the 9th Marines 
reported over 400 enemy dead while Marine casualties 
were 37 killed and more than 200 wounded.^^** 



* Lieutenant Colonel Zensen commented that he believed that the 
official listing of enemy casualties was exaggerated, but stated that "it 
is hard to know just how many enemy soldiets wete killed." The 
reports also indicate that Marine snipers killed the enemy officer with 
binoculars, which was not the case. LtCol Roger Zensen, Comments on 
draft, dtd 4Dec94 (Vietnam Comment File). 

** Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lehrack, who commanded Company I, 
3d Battalion, 3d Marines, observed that Company M, earlier on 6 
March, in the same area as Company L on 3 March, encountered a size- 
able enemy force with the Marines sustaining casualties of 15 dead and 
a number of wounded. [For a detailed account of that action, see LtCol 
Otto J. Lehrack, No Shining Armor, The Marines at War in Vietnam, An 
Oral History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 
243-52.] Lehrack then observed that all of these actions including the 
one of 16 February took place along a major infiltration route which 
included Route 561 and an area that the Marines called the "Market- 
place." He believed that the battalion "forays into this area presented 
the NVA with little choice but to fight." LtCol Otto Lehrack, Com- 
ments on draft, dtd 19Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File). 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



245 



Further to the west, in the 4th Marines' Lancaster II 
operation, the tempo of enemy activity remained rela- 
tively low. For the month of March, the regiment 
reported killing nearly 60 enemy dead and capturing 2 
prisoners while sustaining 13 killed and over 140 
wounded. An enemy ambush of Company K, 3d Bat- 
talion, 9th Marines in the hills 3,000 meters west of Ca 
Lu caused most of the Marine casualties for the month, 
accounting for all of the dead and nearly half of the 
wounded. Aftrer completing an unsuccessful search for 
suspected enemy mortars on the high ground, the 
Marine company had started down towards Route 9- 
Enemy 60mm mortars caught the company in the 
open resulting in 13 killed, and over 40 wounded. 
Among the more seriously wounded was the company 
commander. Captain Alexander K. Ward. While evac- 
uating all of the wounded, the Marines had to leave 
behind eight of the dead. A reconnaissance team final- 
ly retrieved the bodies four days later. 5« 

In northern I Corps, nevertheless, by the end of the 
month, especially along the DMZ front, the situation 



for the allies had improved dramatically. For the most 
part, with the notable exception of that portion of 
Route 9 from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh, the supply lines were 
now open. With the opening of Route 1, Brigadier 
General Glick moved the rest of the 3d Marine Divi- 
sion (Rear) from Phu Bai to the Quang Tri base. Dur- 
ing the month. Marine and allied trucks made over 
2,000 resupply runs between Phu Bai and Quang Tri. 
In the last week of the month. III MAF moved over 
3,866 short tons of supply from Dong Ha to Ca Lu. All 
told for March, 162 American truck convoys carried 
over 12,690 short tons of cargo in northern I Corps. 
The sea lanes and river routes also remained active. 
With the opening of Wunder Beach and the installa- 
tion of the pontoon causeway there on 17 March, the 
allies landed more than 10,000 short tons. All of the 
ports in the north during the month registered record 
tonnage unloaded. The logistic situation had improved 
to the extent that III MAF lifted the limitation on 
equipment and material beyond just the combat essen- 
tial. In fact, while not bringing in additional construc- 



A Marine Sikorsky UH-34D Sea Horse helicopter is about to land with supplies as U.S. Army troop- 
ers frojn the 3 th Armored Cavalry Regiment watch from their armored personnel carrier The Army unit 
was under the operational control of the 3d Marine Division for a joint operation with BIT 2/4. 

Photo is from the Abel Collection 




246 



THE DEFINING YEAR 




Department of Defense (USMC) Photo A371414 
A Marine M67A2 flametank in a blocking position and in support of Company I, 5d Battalion, 
21th Marines aims a streak of fire at suspected enemy positions in the Da Nang area of operations. 
The 21th Marines, newly arrived in February, began conducting small unit operations in late Feb- 
ruary and early March. 



tion materials for the barrier strongpoint system. 
Marine engineers completed the strongpoint bunkers 
on Con Thien, made some minor repairs of bunkers 
damaged by artillery, and installed an additional mine- 
field for the strongpoint at Gio Linh. At Ca Lu, Marine 
and Army engineers and Navy Seabees had started the 
building of a major base to include an airfield, ammu- 
nition storage facilities, bunkers and helicopter revet- 
ments, and a supporting road network.^'' 

By the end of the month, the allies in the north were 
about prepared to launch their counterofFensive for the 
relief of Khe Sanh and to alleviate the pressure on the 
DMZ front. On 28 March, the 1st Air Cavalry Divi- 
sion took over from the 3d Marine Division and the 
4th Marines in Lancaster II the responsibility for the 
combat base at Ca Lu. While the 3d Marine Division 
complained that the construction of the facilities at Ca 
Lu and the effort to keep Route 9 open from Dong Ha 
to the base restricted its mobility to a certain extent, 
the division still prepared to carry out its own limited 
offensive. As a counter to any enemy tank threat in the 
north and to provide the Marines on the DMZ a more 
potent armored punch, in March, MACV had attached 
to the 3d Marine Division the U.S. Army 3d Squadron, 
5th Armored Cavalry Regiment reinforced by a com- 
j:)any from the 2d Battalion, 34th Armored Regiment. 
On 29 March, General Tompkins formed, under the 



command of Colonel Hull, the 3d Marines' comman- 
der, Task Force Kilo, which consisted of the Army 
armored cavalry squadron and BLT 2/4. The following 
day, in coordination with the 2d ARVN Regiment, 
Task Force Kilo mounted an attack in the Gio Linh 
sector as a cover for the Pegasus operation. The allied 
counterofFensive in the north was underway.^"' 

March Operations /';? the Rest of I Corps 

By the beginning of March, the enemy main force 
units, outside of Thua Thien and Quang Tri Provinces, 
pretty much lay low. In the Americal Division opera- 
tion Wheeler- Wallowa in the Que Son Valley, the 
196th Light Infantry Brigade accounted for about the 
same number of enemy dead as the previous month, 
while sustaining about a quarter less casualties. As far 
as the Americal Division's Operation Muscatine south 
of Chu Lai was concerned. III MAJF listed it among sev- 
eral operations that "did not have any significant com- 
bat." Still, as General Cushman observed, the Com- 
munist forces in I Corps had largely won the 
countryside "by default" as the AR'VN, South Viet- 
namese militia forces, and Revolutionary Development 
teams during Tet fell back to defend the cities and 



*See Chapter 14 for further discussion of Task Force Kilo and its 
relationship to Operation Pegasus. 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



247 




Top photo is from Abel Collection while the bottom is Department ot Defense (USMC) Photo A372933- 
Top, Marines from a 60mm mortar section of the 5d Battalion, 1th Marines run from a landing zone 
in the "Arizona Territory" southwest of Da Nang. The last man has the mortar base strapped across 
his shoulders while the mortar tube can be seen carried by the Marine in front of him. Below, Marines 
during Operation Worth form a chain to move supplies out of a landing zone in "Happy Valley. " 



^^ 




248 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



towns. According to U.S. measurements, GVN control 
in the countryside reached its lowest point in March.'^' 

In much of southern I Corps, however, the Ameri- 
can and South Vietnamese forces in March began to 
reenter the hamlets abandoned to the Viet Cong. Lost 
in the reporting of these numerous engagements was a 
16 March 1968 United Press dispatch describing an 
operation by Task Force Barker of the Americal Divi- 
sion's 1 1th Light Infantry Brigade in the hamlet of My 
Lai, called "Pink Village" by the American troops. 
According to the news report, '"Pink Village' had 
become 'Red, White, and Blue' Village." A U.S. 
spokesman reported that the American troops had 
killed "128 Communists." The 128 "Communists," 
however, turned out to be all villagers, mostly women, 
children, and old men. It would be nearly a year later 
when the details about the My Lai massacre surfaced.''-* 

In the large Da Nang area of operations, the 1st 
Marine Division faced many of the same circumstances 
that the Americal Division did — a low-level war 
fought in the surrounding hamlets and villages. In reg- 
imental reserve, the newly arrived 1st Battalion, 27th 
Marines spent much ol March getting acclimated and 
adjusted to its new mission. Second Lieutenant 
William R. Black, Jr., a platoon commander with 
Company A, remembered that his company conducted 
a lot of patrols to keep "on our toes tactically while get- 
ting our act together." Lieutenant Black admitted that 
the battalion was still not too effective as the troops 
were still unfamiliar with their sector and not yet bat- 
tle-hardened. While the other two battalions of the 
27th Marines were more active, their great concern 
remained surprise firing devices. Overall, the regiment 
undertook over 2,900 small unit patrols throughout its 
TAOR resulting in about 310 contacts, 182 initiated 
by the Marines and the remainder by the YCfi^ 

The Communist forces made only one serious attack 
on the Da Nang base in March and that was limited to a 
series of rocket bombardments. On 4 March, beginning 
at 0100 and lasting until 0255, enemy gunners fired 
some 50 122mm missiles onto the base. Nine landed 
near the 7th Communication Battalion, six on the FLC 
compound near Red Beach, and the remainder at the 
Marble Mountain Facility. The rocket attacks resulted in 
6 deaths and nearly 30 wounded. They also destroyed 1 
CH-53 and damaged 37 other helicopters and observa- 
tion aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel William S. Fagan, com- 
mander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines at the time, 
remembered "our primary and overriding mission . . . 



*See Chapter 29 for further discussion of My Lai. 



was to prevent the enemy from firing his 1 22mm rock- 
ets toward the Da Nang vital area." His battalion sent out 
squad-sized patrols and ambushes "every day and night 
with emphasis on night." He estimated that "virtually 
half of our infantry squads, with normal attachments, 
were on ambush every night." According to Fagan, the 
enemy was able to fire only a few rockets successfiilly 
from his sector, but there "was fairly continuous enemy 
contact with casualties on both sides."'''* 

Based on intelligence that the Communist forces 
continued to work on upgrading their road network 
from Base Area 607 northwest of Da Nang and possibly 
infiltrating units south into "Happy Valley" and the 
"Arizona Territory" (named after the U.S. western bad- 
lands), the usual approaches to the base from the moun- 
tains to the west, the 7th Marines launched two spoil- 
ing attacks. In the first. Operation Rock, the 3d 
Battalion, 7th Marines conducted a one-battalion sweep 
on the peninsula formed by the Vu Gia and Thu Bon 
Rivers, the so-called "Arizona Territory," about 6,000 
meters northwest of the battalion's base area at An Hoa. 
During the four days of the operation, from 6-10 
March, the Marines encountered only small units, sus- 
taining casualties of 3 dead and 24 wounded while 
killing about 35 of the enemy. On 13 March, in the sec- 
ond operation. Operation Worth, the 1st and 2d Battal- 
ions, 7th Marines supported by tanks of the U.S. Army's 
3d Squadron, 5 th Armored Cavalry, entered into the 
anything but "Happy Valley." In the nearly two- week 
operation, which ended on 26 March, the Marines and 
Army tankers only met scattered resistance. Still the 
Marines took casualties of 27 dead and 89 wounded and 
killed an estimated 160 of the enemy. ^5 

In March, while the Marine units at Da Nang 
continued to hold their own, to the north, Task Force 
X-Ray consolidated its area of operations and made 
the necessary adjustments with the Provisional 
Corps. With the formal end of Operation Hue City 
on 2 March, General LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray 
commander, started to bring the respective battal- 
ions under the 1st Marines back to their own sectors. 
The two 5th Marines battalions that participated in 
Hue City, the 1st and 2d Battalions, rejoined their 
parent regiment in the 5th Marines' Operation 
Houston in the Phu Loc District. LaHue assigned 
the 1st Marines the defense of the Phu Bai vital area 
and Col Co/Tan My naval support activity with two 
battalions, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and the 2d 
Battalion, 3d Marines which moved up from Opera- 
tion Houston. At the same time, the two Army bat- 
talions in Operation Houston, the 2d Battalion, 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



249 



502d Regiment and the 1st Battalion, 327th Regi- 
ment reverted to Army control. ''fi 

While trying to build up the defenses of Phu Bai 
and protect Route 1 and the vital water routes, Gener- 
al LaHue also wanted to expand operations into the 
approaches towards both the base and the city of Hue. 
On 3 March, giving the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne 
Division, two battalions — the 1st Battalion, 1st 
Marines and the 2d Battalion, 327th Airborne Regi- 
ment — ^LaHue ordered the Army brigade, still under 
his operational control, to conduct an operation in the 
old Cumberland area, along Route 547, the gateway to 
the A Shau Valley. Lasting only four days, from 3 
March until 7 March, the two-battalion operation, 
code-named Mingo, had little to show for the effort 
except for five dead VC and two captured rifles. Faced 
with the changing command relations with the estab- 
lishment of Provisional Corps, General LaHue cur 
short the operation.''' 

On 8 March, two days before the activation of Prov 
Corps, III MAP implemented the agreed-upon change 
of boundaries between Task Force X-Ray and the new 
command. Task Force X-Ray retained responsibility 
for the Phu Bai vital area and Phu Loc District with the 
1st Marines in the former and the 5th Marines in the 
latter. General LaHue returned the two U.S. Army 
brigades under his operational control, the 1st Brigade, 
101st Airborne Division and the 3d Brigade, 82d Air- 
borne Division, to Army Major General Olinto M. 
Barsanti, the commander of the 101st, who had just 
established his command post to the west of Phu Bai. 
The 101st was to take over the expanse between the 1st 
Air Cavalry at Camp Evans and Task Force X-Ray at 
Phu Bai. This included the area around Hue, Route 1 
north of Phu Bai, the Col Co/Tan My area, and Route 
547 towards the A Shau Valley.''^ 

With a smaller area of operations and with five 
infantry battalions under his operational control. 
General LaHue decided upon a three-phased opera- 
tion to the east of Phu Bai. The first phase. Opera- 
tion Ford, was to be a two-battalion sweep of the Phu 
Thu Peninsula which had long been a staging area 
for the 804th Main Force Battalion. He gave the mis- 
sion to Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, the 1st Marines 
commander, and coordinated the operation with the 
1st ARVN Division Lam Son 194 to the north of the 
Marines. On 14 March, Marine helicopters deposit- 
ed in landing zones, the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines on 
the northern, and the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines on 
the southern part of the peninsula. The two battal- 
ions than began to advance towards one another. In 



several sharp clashes, the two Marine battalions 
killed 145 of the enemy and captured 5 prisoners. 
The Marines lost 14 men dead, including a Navy 
corpsman, and sustained 113 wounded. On 20 
March, Task Force X-Ray closed out the operation. 
General LaHue canceled the planned second and 
third phases of Operation Ford.*'^ 

By this time, the planning for Pegasus, the relief 
operation for Khe Sanh, was in full swing. The 1st Air 
Cavalry Division prepared to close out its Operation 
Jeb Stuart and move to its new staging area at Ca Lu. 
With the westward deployment of the 1st Cavalry 
Division, the 101st Airborne Division was to move to 
a new operating area some 18 miles northwest of Hue. 
At the same time, the 1st Marines with its 1st and 2d 
Battalions, reinforced by the 2d Battalion, 3d Marines, 
was to join the 1st Air Cavalry in Operation Pegasus. 
Task Force X-Ray was to take over then the area vacat- 
ed by the 101st Airborne Division.-" 

Brigadier General LaHue, thus once more, was 
to expand his area of operations, while at the same 
time having fewer troops to do so. At the end of the 
month, Major General Donn J. Robertson, the 1st 
Marine Division commander, provided some relief 
by transferring one of the 27th Marines' battalions, 
the 1st Battalion, from Da Nang to assume the 
security of Route 1 between Hue and Phu Bai and 
the protection of the ColCo/Tan My base. The bat- 
talion relieved the remaining Army units still there 
and operated almost to the suburbs of Hue. At the 
same time. General LaHue expanded the 5 th 
Marines' Houston area to include the remaining 
portion of the X-Ray TAOR, excluding the area 
occupied by the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines and 
the Phu Bai Vital Area. At the same time, the task 
force commander ordered the 1st Battalion, 5th 
Marines with two companies to take over from the 
1st Marines the protection of key outposts and 
bridges, especially the Truoi River Bridge on Route 
1 southeast of Phu Bai."' 

While Task Force X-Ray made these various 
adjustments, the Communists were not slow to take 
advantage of what they perceived as possible chinks 
in the American defenses. On 21 March, in a rela- 
tively minor attack, enemy gunners fired some 20 
mortar and rocket rounds on the Phu Bai Base, 
which resulted in two Marines wounded and some 
structural damage to a building. Five days later, 
between 0300 and 0330 on the morning of the 26th, 
however, 108 122mm rockets and nearly 80 82mm 
mortar rounds fell upon both the airfield and the 



250 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



Phu Bai compound. This barrage resulted in 4 dead, 
2 Marine and 2 ARVN, and 46 wounded, most of 
whom were Marines. Despite hitting the airfield, the 
Force Logistic Support Group sector, and an ARVN 
training area, the rockets and mortars caused only 
relatively light damage to three aircraft, two heli- 
copters and a C— 117D transport, and destroyed two 
10,000-gallon fuel bladders.^-^ 

Instead of further bombardments on the Phu Bai 
base, on 31 March 1968, under cover of a mortar 
and ground attack, enemy sappers successfully 
placed demolitions on the Truoi River Bridge and a 
smaller bridge, designated Bridge No. 4. The K—2 
VC Battalion with three companies reinforced by 
three sapper platoons had simultaneously attacked 
the two bridge outposts and a nearby Combined 
Action Platoon, CAP H-3. Alerted by one of their 
ambushes, the Combined Action Marines repulsed 
the enemy attack after it reached the outer wire. 
The bridge outposts were not so lucky. Both the 
Truoi Bridge and Bridge No. 4 sustained substan- 
tive damage with both bridges impassable for 
motor traffic and Bridge No. 4 to foot traffic as 
well. Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had 
placed two squads on the smaller bridge supported 
by a machine gun and a recoilless rifle and a platoon 
supported by two machine guns and two mortars 
on the Truoi River Bridge. The attacking force on 
Bridge No. 4 killed eight Marines and wounded 
seven more. On the Truoi River Bridge, the Marine 
platoon sustained casualties of 6 dead and 23 
wounded. The Communists lost a total of 12 men 
in the attacks. In an investigation of the attack. 
Colonel Bohn, the 5 th Marines commander, report- 
ed "the strength of the security forces was ade- 
quate." He blamed the success of the enemy attack 
partially on the fact that the company was new to 
the sector and had only occupied these positions the 
day before.'^ 

Although the Marines improved their defensive 
dispositions and coordination of supporting arms 
and placement of reaction forces, Task Force X-Ray 
at the end of the month was hard pressed to main- 
tain any initiative. Originally Task Force X-Ray had 
planned to expand operations in April, but General 
LaHue admitted that he had postponed the detailed 
planning for these undertakings. Any new offensive 
actions "were contingent upon the developing situ- 
ation and what economies of forces can be institut- 
ed .. . ." Still if the war had reached a stalemate in 
the Task Force X-Ray area of operations, the allies 



were ready to launch their major counteroffensive in 
the north.'"* 

Regaining the Initiative 

While the much-heralded relief of Khe Sanh, 
Operation Pegasus, grabbed most of the attention, 
the allies in April appeared to have regained the ini- 
tiative in most of I Corps. According to U.S. pacifi- 
cation statistics, 7,000 more civilians in I Corps were 
living in secure areas than the previous month, 
marking the first increase since the enemy Tet offen- 
sive. In what amounted to a corps-wide offensive. III 
MAF conducted 17 major operations of battalion- 
size or larger, resulting in over 3,500 enemy casual- 
ties. The South Vietnamese were also active. In 
Quang Tin Province, for example, the 2d Battalion, 
6th ARVN Regiment opened up 1 5 miles of road 
between the district town of Tien Phouc and the 
province capital of Tam Ky. For the most part, how- 
ever, in the three southern provinces of I Corps, the 
Communist forces avoided battle and limited most 
of their activity to scattered guerrilla attacks and 
mines and boobytraps.""^ 

At Da Nang, as in the rest of southern I Corps, 
the 1st Marine Division reported that "irregular 
activity . . . continues to inflict more casualties than 
actual contact with the enemy." At the same time, 
however, the division for the first time since Tet 
began offensive operations about 12 miles south of 
the airbase in the Go Noi Island, formed by the 
channels of the Thu Bon, Ky Lam, and Ba Ren 
Rivers. From 10-14 April, the 3d Battalion, 7th 
Marines conducted Operation Jasper Square in the 
western Go Noi. In the four days of the operation, 
the battalion killed 54 of the enemy at the price of 
6 Marine dead and 30 wounded. While the opera- 
tion ended on the l4th, the 3d Battalion remained 
in the Go Noi "with all units becoming part of the 
Da Nang TAOR."'-^ 

In the interlude. Marine and Army radar imagery 
aircraft and "Stingray" reconnaissance patrols 
reported continued enemy improvement of the 
enemy road network leading through Charlie Ridge 
into Happy Valley and also into the Arizona Terri- 
tory and Go Noi Island sectors. The Marine recon- 
naissance teams not only observed enemy troop 
movement, but also directed artillery and air onto 
the enemy forces. For example, on the morning of 7 
April, one Stingray patrol with the radio call sign 
"May Fly" from its perch on a ridgeline looking into 



POST-TET IN I CORPS 



251 




Photo courtesy of LtCol Charles E. Mueller, (USMC) Ret 
Prior to Operation Allen Brook, MajGen DonnJ. Robertson briefs syndicated columnist Joseph 
Alsop on the situation at Da Nang. Trudging up the hill to view the terrain are LtCol Charles E. 
Mueller, the commander of the 2d Battalion, 1th Marines, in the lead, folloived by Gen Robertson, 
then Mr. Alsop. Two of the Marines are carrying what appears to be a briefing map. 



the Arizona spotted some 200 main force troops 
wearing green utilities, helmets, and flak jackets. 
The Marines called in helicopter gunships and an 
artillery fire mission. "May Fly" reported 5 1 of the 
enemy killed. During the rest of the day and 
through the night of 8 April, the reconnaissance 
team counted nearly 170 more enemy troops in nine 
sightings which resulted in an estimated 70 enemy 
dead. Later in the month, from 23 April through 
the 30th, two other Marine Stingray teams, one 
overlooking the Arizona and the other the Go Noi, 
in 17 sightings, reported nearly 370 enemy troops 
moving through the Thu Bon and Vu Gia River 
Valleys and claimed 191 of the enemy killed by 
Marine supporting arms.^^ 

On 27 April, III MAF organized Operation 
Quick Track, under Lieutenant Colonel John F T 
Kelly, of the III MAF G-2 staff, to track the 2d 
NVA Division. According to Marine intelligence, 
the enemy division had retreated southwest to the 
Laotian border after the failure of its Tet campaign, 
but was planning now to mount a new offensive in 



the Da Nang area of operations. With his command 
post on Hill 55 south of Da Nang, Lieutenant 
Colonel Kelly's task force consisted of a small head- 
quarters, the provisional company of the 1st Recon- 
naissance Company, a detachment of Sub-Unit 1, 
1st Radio Battalion with signal intelligence capa- 
bility, and the U.S. Army Special Forces l4th Com- 
pany, Mobile Strike Force and the 245th Surveil- 
lance Airplane Company, l6th Aviation Group. The 
1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing 
would provide support when necessary. Task Force 
Kelly, named after its commander, began its first 
inserts on 30 April and continued the operation into 
May. According to Kelly, Operation Quick Track 
reflected Lieutenant General Cushman's "innovative 
use of intelligence to track ahead of the enemy 
rather than report history.""*^ 

With the obvious movement of enemy regulars 
into the western and southern avenues of approach to 
the Da Nang base. General Robertson decided upon 
a series of preemptive operations. In the first. Opera- 
tion Ballard, on 29 April, the ^th Marines sent one 



252 



THE DEFINING YEAR 



battalion into tlie Charlie Ridge area. At the same 
time, both the 7th and 27th Marines prepared to con- 
duct a two-regiment operation, Operation Allan 
Brook in the Go Noi. This would then be followed by 
another 7th Marines operation, later called 
Mameluke Thrust, into both the Arizona and Happy 
Valley regions. As one regimental commander 
observed, these operations reflected a III MAF 
"change of emphasis ... to go after the enemy in his 
base camps, rather than attempt to interdict him by 
patrols close into the vital area.""''* 

In April, however, the capability of the 1st 
Marine Division to conduct these expanded opera- 
tions was fairly limited, especially in the Task Force 
X-Ray sectors at Phu Bai and in Phu Loc. As 
Brigadier General LaHue, the Task Force X-Ray 
commander admitted, whenever the division 
mounted such an operation it was taking a chance 
of reducing the density of operations. With four of 
the nine infantry battalions of the 1st Division 
assigned to X-Ray, LaHue stated that he had ade- 
quate forces to "do assigned operations . . . {but} 
not adequate ... to go after the enemy . . . . " 
According to LaHue, he could "keep Highway 1 
open, aggressively patrol, and keep after the enemy 
in some strength." His tenure at Phu Bai, however, 
was about over. On 7 April, Brigadier General John 
N. McLaughlin relieved LaHue as the commander 
of Task Force X-Ray. The latter returned to Da 
Nang where a week later. Brigadier General George 
D. Webster replaced him there as the assistant divi- 
sion commander.*' 

The Phu Bai forces under McLaughlin operated 
much the same as they did under LaHue. The 5th 
Marines continued its expanded Houston opera- 
tion. On 13 April, in a no-name operation, literal- 
ly called No Name No. 2, the 1st Battalion, 27th 
Marines ran into two North Vietnamese compa- 
nies, probably from the 804th Main Force Battal- 
ion, in a fortified hamlet along a small canal north 
of Route 1 and a few miles east of Hue. According 
to Second Lieutenant William R. Black, Jr., of 
Company A, "the enemy {was} in {a} great situa- 
tion to fight us off. . . ." When Black's 2d Platoon 
reached the hamlet, the company's 3d Platoon, 
under Second Lieutenant Roger Charles had 
already been hit hard and trying to withdraw. 
Black later wrote his family: 



In retrospect, I now know I should have written up 
Lieutenant Charles for a decoration. He had advanced as 
close to the enemy as he could get. He had lost his radio 
to enemy fire. He was taking care of the wounded man 
near him. He guided the rest of us as we arrived at this 
position to help, & he continued to fight the enemy. At 
the time, I was naive enough to think that this was expect- 
ed of us, as routine combat performance by a good Marine. 

The Marine battalion lost 24 dead and 37 
wounded while accounting for an estimated 60 of 
the enemy. On the following day, Easter Sunday, 
the Marines picked up the dead. Lieutenant Black 
several years later remembered the scene as a 
macabre "Easter Procession — pulling dead bodies 
back in ponchos. "^i** 

From 19-26 April, in a rice-denial operation, the 
2d Battalion, 5th Marines supported by two ARVN 
battalions conducted Operation Baxter Garden on the 
Phu Thu Peninsula. During the seven-day operation, 
the Marines engaged enemy platoon-sized forces, but 
for the most part met up with scattered enemy groups. 
Most of the Marine casualties were the result of trig- 
gering enemy land mines. The Marines sustained 13 
dead and 125 wounded while killing 5 5 of the enemy. 
At the end of the month. Task Force X-Ray continued 
to be responsible for an expanding area of operations 
with limited forces.«- 

While the 1st Air Cavalry Division ended its par- 
ticipation in Operation Pegasus on 15 April, the air- 
mobile division and the 101st Airborne Division 
undertook the long-postponed offensive in the A 
Shau Valley.*** For some time, American commanders 
had viewed with concern the activity of the enemy to 
improve his lines of communication leading from the 
A Shau into Quang Nam Province and also towards 



*See Chapter 17 for coverage of Operations Allan Brook and 
Mameluke Thrust. 



** William Black commented that "in the Episcopal Church, where 
I grew up, the Easter 'procession' is a glorious parade by the choir, 
acolytes, priest, and children into the church at the beginning of the 
Easter worship service. It is a vivid and joyful celebration of Christ's tri- 
umph over death. Hence the irony that hit me that Easter morning . . . 
." In his letter to his parents, he remarked upon battlefield discipline of 
the enemy: "He not only took with him his own wounded (& did iome- 
thing with his dead if he did not take them too); he even gathered up his 
spent cartridges and took them. In the very trench that he had fought 
us for five hrs, we could hardly find a spent cartridge! The enemy knows 
how CO discourage us. We found bits of meat in trenches where direct 
arty hits had desttoyed the enemy, but we only found two enemy bod- 
ies." William R. Black, Comments on